Mexican middle class gives up haute cuisine for corn fritters and cajeta

Towering palms and pines, narrow cobbled streets, chameleons skittering across the sunbaked stone walls of houses built flush with the sidewalk. On the surface, the elegant residential neighborhood of San Angel Inn would seem impervious to change.

But in the garden of one such home, at an umbrella-covered table surrounded by azal-eas and ferns, the host of a typical Mexican Sunday afternoon family dinner explains how last year's 100 percent inflation and devaluation of the peso to one-sixth last year's value have reached even this quiet enclave.

''Whenever we had guests in the past,'' he says in English perfected through decades of business travel, ''we would have an international menu: coq au vin, or something like that.

''Now,'' he says, ''everything is too expensive, and we've gone back to Mexican food.''

To be sure, the food is still prepared by the family cook and served by a white-jacketed butler: Wages for domestic help have not kept pace with inflation. But even the cheeses, served between the main course of meatballs and corn fritters and a dessert of crepes in sauce called cajetam, are Mexican.

Mario Lara ferries tourists around this sprawling, smoggy city of 17 million in a big Ford sedan. He, too, has seen inflation at work. A liter of gasoline costs him 20 pesos. A year ago he was paying 6 pesos.

Nevertheless, he benefits from the peso-dollar exchange rate: Tourists, flocking to Mexico because their dollars buy so much, have plenty of money to spend for his services. And so far he has not had to change his life style.

But he sees some changes in the lives of others, especially policemen and auto license inspectors. In the past, he says, you slipped the patrolman a 100 -peso bill (now worth about 70 cents) to avoid being fined for running a red light. A 1,000-peso note would get you a license without an inspection.

''I don't see so much of that anymore,'' he says, crediting the new government of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado with a crackdown on corruption.

The President is also cracking down on inefficiency, even trying to change the way his own senior officials do business. Salaries have been frozen. And, says Treasury official Angel Gurria, director-general of public credit, ''Our fringe benefits have disappeared.''

Mr. Gurria notes that gasoline allocations for government officials have been slashed, and officials who once had two cars are fighting to retain one.

Senior government officials have been allotted only one ''adviser'' apiece, he adds. And expense accounts for typical Mexican lunches (beginning around 2 p.m. and often stretching to 5 p.m.) have been cut.

The new controller-general's office (a watchdog agency established by President de la Madrid to root out corruption and inefficiency) demands that even the best secretaries be paid only secretarial wages, and not, as happened sometimes in the past, be given fancy titles and shoved into higher pay scales.

The result? Good office workers are drifting toward the private sector. ''Now ,'' jokes the youthful, bearded Mr. Gurria, ''we get lousy secretaries.'' On a more serious note, he adds, ''We're changing our life styles.'' Now, unlike the oil-boom years, ''We windowshop when we go abroad.''

If they go abroad at all, that is. One business executive, accustomed to frequent trips to New York and Chicago, says he has not left Mexico since last summer.

Why? The airline ticket alone, which might have cost his firm 2,400 pesos a year ago, could now cost 90,000 pesos, not to mention room and board.

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