Once, I was scared of Provel and now I’m not. I heard so many people describe how much they disliked Provel and it turned into a monster inside my head.
Provel cheese is a St. Louis food tradition. Having lived in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa, I had never heard of Provel until we moved to St. Louis. Provel is a blend of processed swiss, provolone and cheddar cheeses top the famous St. Louis-style pizza made with a cracker-thin crust and sliced into party squares.
The exact origin of Provel seems to be disputed, but according to this St. Louis Today article “Provelology,” a Washington University anthropology major, “traced the trademark application for Provel to 1947.” One individual who helped contribute to the popularity of Provel in St. Louis is Ed Imo who opened Imo’s Pizza chain in 1964 after performing Provel experiments at his Uncle’s pizzeria Old Helen’s Pizzeria #1. There are Imo’s restaurants all over the city and you can even find their Provel squiggles in grocery stores.
When we first announced our move to St. Louis, friends warned us about Provel. Many described its flavor and texture as an acquired taste that many non-locals disliked.
Jake commuted to his new job in St. Louis while we searched for a new home. One evening, he ordered pizza delivery to his hotel room. Coworkers had warned him to double-check whether pizzas had Provel or Mozzerrella, and even though he did his due diligence, it arrived covered with Provel. He gave it a valiant effort, but the Provel won. “I found myself eating around the cheese,” he said.
“But how could this be?” I wondered. Jake loves cheese. Our ratio of cheese to things that aren’t cheese in our grocery cart is alarming; cheddar, provolone, swiss, goat cheese, brie, we love them all. Call me crazy, but I actually prefer American cheese melted on classic cheeseburgers and in homey grilled cheese sandwiches. The fact that Jake met a cheese he didn’t like was hard to comprehend.
I just wanted a taste of Provel so I decided to serve a frozen St. Louis-style pizza to my family when they visited from Minnesota. Mama Lucia’s kind face beckoned from the grocery store freezer and I knew she’d show us the way. Plus, they were on sale for $4.
“Welcome to St. Louis!” I exclaimed, as I pulled the pizza from the oven. The cheese crisped to a pleasant golden brown. I hesitantly nibbled an edge piece and found that I liked the Provel pizza. This one wasn’t particularly gooey, but I could still taste that processed cheesiness.
The crisped end pieces reminded me of the edges of a grilled cheese sandwich. One made American cheese of course! Basically, everyone liked the Provel pizza.
If at first you don’t like Provel, try, try again. It’s possible that you might like one Provel pizza and hate another.
Other St. Louis food traditions I look forward to trying include a St. Paul Sandwich, frozen custard from a Ted Drewes Stand & slinger.