I'm watching latex-gloved Dave Frey smear spicy molé powder over the small white wheel of French cheese, a buttery, fresh number called Brillat-Savarin, at 40 percent butterfat among the richest of the triple creams.
I'm watching him, but I'm channeling Elisabeth Rozin, Philadelphia's late anthropologist of ethnic flavor, whose explorations of how salsa (among other things), for Pete's sake, got into Grandma's meat loaf, opened my eyes to the secret travels of foods, and how they've reshaped traditional cuisines.
It wasn't so astonishing that Frey was coating the cheese: You've seen that trick before - ash coatings and grape-leaf wraps, herb marinades and peppery rubs.
But I was curious why it was Mexican molé (MO-lay) behind the cheese counter at Di Bruno Bros., 18th and Chestnut, that was his coating of choice. Italian shop. French cheese. Mexican rub? They're calling the finished product, biligually, Vie de Loco.
You can find some stunning molé sauces in these parts, descendants of the rainbow of sauces that date back centuries in Mexico, mixtures variously of tomatoes or tomatillos and onion, garlic, and designated chiles, and often almonds or peanuts or raisins, and typically cinnamon, and Mexico's gift to us all - chocolate.
The ingredient list can run seriously on. At 28, the number of chiles, nuts, spices, and such in the Oaxacan black molé that Chicago chef Rick Bayless whipped up for the White House dinner honoring Mexico's President Felipe Calderon last year was about average.
But the molés tend to congregate in Mexican eateries, small, medium, and well-bankrolled, including Distrito, where the seared duck breast has come with a rich molé poblano, or at Adsum where it adorns pork, or El Rey, which has featured - for the Year of the Rabbit? - a sweet-tangy version with rabbit.
The chef at El Rey, by the way, is Dionicio Jimenez, a native of Puebla near Mexico City, where the molés can be on the sweeter, milder side, a profile attributed to the influence of Spanish nuns. (Speaking of cross-cultural flavor currents . . .).
Rozin preferred to call those sorts of influences emblematic less of the infamous melting pot, in which flavors blur to unrecognizable versions of the originals, than of a "mega-crossroads" where cultures intersect and new flavorings (chile peppers, for instance, or peanuts) enhance or extend existing regional cooking traditions.
New World chiles kicked up the flavors of ginger, garlic, and onions already in use in Indian and Southeast Asian dishes. And New World peanuts were welcomed as cheap protein and fats in China and Malaysia, Rozin argues in her 1999 Crossroads Cooking, since red meat and dairy - easier to come by in Europe - were rarer there.
And so it goes, the culinary seesaw that brings milk, almonds, and sugar in the hands of Europeans to Mexico's bitter chocolate; or French chefs fleeing the country's revolution to Philadelphia (including, briefly, the famed gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, after whom the aforementioned cheese was named); or Vietnamese emigres, in the 1970s, who dotted the city with cafes and popularized fish sauce along with a taste for versions of banh mi, spring rolls, and pho soup.
In the tide flowing north from Mexico, of course, salsa for a while supplanted ketchup as a condiment of choice (even in meat loaf), and if smoky chipotle was the flavor de l'année a few years ago, could molé be making its move?
It has been showing up outside its comfort zone - saucing short ribs at Lacroix's lavish brunch, curing the salumi made by the Batali family in Seattle (and also sold at Di Bruno's), and now on the rounds of Brillat-Savarin ($30 a pound) that Dave Frey is rubbing, adding an earthy, spicy backbeat to its soft, mildly sour creaminess.
Frey got the idea, he said, after shopping at the Mexican groceries in the Italian Market when he worked at Di Bruno's Ninth Street shop, which now also carries the rounds, (and when he and his wife were making some goat cheese of their own).
Once again the roads cross, and a new flavor combination tries its wings. And a riddle is solved. It makes a certain sense now: Italian store. French cheese. Mexican rub!
Not so loco after all.
Di Bruno Bros.
1730 Chestnut St.
930 S. Ninth St.