Hungry for Home: Provel cheese
April 23rd, 2013
02:15 PM ET
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There are some foods that are so tied to their region, eating them is like a hug from home. Expats seek creative ways to get them shipped or find the closest equivalent in their new city. In the first installment of Hungry for Home, contributor Cara Reedy pines for St. Louis' Provel cheese.

When I moved to New York eleven years ago, I got a lot of blank stares when I told people I was from St. Louis. Some people would say genius things like “Oh right, you have that arch,” or my favorite, “I’ve been in the airport, is there anything in the city?”

People went out of their way to tell me I spoke weirdly. Cab drivers consistently tried to take me on long rides around the city, thinking I was a tourist. I got really homesick after six months.

To cheer myself up I decided to make a St. Louis-style, crisp-crust, square-sliced pizza. I went to my local grocery store to buy supplies. They had everything I needed except the most important ingredient, Provel cheese.

Provel is a little hard to describe. It’s processed, gooey, a little smoky and when heated is takes on the qualities of molten lava. It’s really just delicious and it tastes like home.

I looked all around the store, but there was none to be found. My neighborhood market was never that well stocked, so I had the brilliant idea of going to the fancy grocery store. Their cheese selection was amazing; of course they would have it. I ran up the street knowing I was that much closer to achieving my goal.

When I arrived, I headed straight for the cheese aisle. It was an impressive selection of blues, soft, semi-soft, hard, provolone, cheddar, pretty much every cheese you could think of. I dug around for a good twenty minutes and still couldn’t find Provel. Finally, a woman who'd been stocking the shelves came over to help.

Stock Woman: Can I help you?
Me: Yes, I am looking for Provel.
SW: Provolone?
Me: No, Provel.
SW: Hmmm...

Then she started digging near the provolone.

SW: This it?
Me: No, that’s provolone

At this point her male colleague came over to help. The two of them started speaking in Spanish more rapidly than my high school Spanish could comprehend, but I could tell they thought I was crazy. So the woman got on the loudspeaker and asked for the manager to come to the cheese aisle.

SW: Carlo a customer needs assistance in cheese. Please come to the cheese aisle.

Carlo turned out to be a skinny Italian man who looked like he might know cheese. I thought I could be getting somewhere with this. The two stock people stayed.

Carlo: How can I help?
Me: I am looking for Provel.
Carlo: Provolone
Me: No sorry, we have already been through this. Not provolone, Provel.
Carlo: I don’t think you know what you are talking about. There is no such thing.
Me: We use it in St. Louis.
Carlo: (Blank stare) I have provolone.
Me: OK, thanks. Never mind.

Carlo and the two stock people were staring at me like I was the dumbest human they had ever seen. I could feel their judgment.
Homesick, feeling like a hick and still cheeseless I went home.

I would not be defeated. I researched Provel. What I found is Provel is not a pure cheese, but rather a trademarked, processed blend of cheddar, swiss and provolone, with a history as gooey as it texture. I also found a standard formula, which I used to make my pizza.

Fauxvel

1 cup grated white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
1/2 cup grated provolone
1 tsp of liquid smoke
Toss the cheese with the liquid smoke until thoroughly incorporated.

Provel has always been a bit controversial. Comedian and former 30 Rock star Judah Friedlander regularly makes fun of it in his stand-up routine and told NPR's The Salt, "It's not even legally cheese. It's melted plastic from the '80s."

Some of my friends back home are ashamed of it. I say, St. Louis, keep your head up and love Provel if you want to. It’s ours.

Got a hometown food you can't live without? We're here for you. Share your story in the comments below.

Previously:
St. Louis's snoot sandwich
Thou shalt envy thy neighbor's chain
Three steps to cheesesteak supremacy
Jersey Shore subs (hold the Snooki)
Baby, we were born to runza – revisiting a Nebraska favorite

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Filed under: Cuisines • Hungry for Home • Missouri • Obsessions • Pizza


soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. hugonelson1964blog

    Reblogged this on Not All Who Wander Are Lost and commented:
    Saw this cheese for a St. Louis style pizza, very thin, no rise crust and this cheese...Sounds very yummy

    October 4, 2014 at 4:00 am |
  2. June Bug

    PROVEL CHEESE IS FOR SALE AT KROGER ON PLYMOUTH RD ANN ARBOR,MICHIGAN AS ON 8/15/2013 AND THAT MAKES A STL GIRL SOOOOOOOOOO HAPPY!!!!!!!!

    August 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  3. June Hoke

    I know if you do not live in STL you can not find PROVEL in your home town. Well I live in Ann Arbor,Michigan and have been looking for this cheese locally. also in Arizona when I lived there. I bought 7 5lb bricks last year in STL while I was visiting. Last week I finished the last of my PROVEL. I just hate to spend the money on expensive shipping. Today 8/15/2013 I found PROVEL CHEESE in ropes 6oz package by the (SwissAm Co.) out of STL in my Kroger store at Plymouth rd. Ann Arbor,Mi cost was 4.99nfor 6oz, but who cares My cheese is here and Iam ssooooooooo happy!!!! so look at Kroger or go to Plymouth rd Happy Happy Happy

    August 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  4. b n quail

    I grew up in STL back in ancient times before there were pizza chains. If you wanted pizza, you went to an Italian restaurant. St. Louis had a large Italian section (and still does) called "the hill". They were serving St. Louis style pizza in the '50s. What makes it St. Louis style is thin crust and provel cheese. Provel is made in Wisconsin exclusively for the St. Louis area . I've had pizza all over the country and you can find good and bad in any city. The author of this article makes provel sound like velveeta. No! It's just a blend of real cheeses. By the way, while the City of St. Louis has lost about 2/3 of it's population over the last 60 years, the St. Louis area has tripled in population and is doing quite well.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  5. AB

    I worked at Imos in Stl for nearly 4 years where it is signature to use provel cheese. Provel Cheese isn't bad after the pizza is made, but I can assure you Mozzarella is far better on pizza.

    April 29, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • David

      1. Mozzarella isn't better or worse, it's just different. Mozzarella gives you the stringy, chewy cheese pizza. Provel gives you the melty, creamy pizza. I like both.
      2. Mozzarella is one of the 3 cheeses in Provel.

      April 29, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  6. chanteuse

    Provel only works on Imo's pizza. It is best eaten cold for breakfast.

    April 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Blake

      For those of you who are from St. Louis and miss provel cheese as much as I do... you can order it relatively cheap from DiGregorio's Market at http://www.digregoriofoods.com/ I discovered the market while reading an article about St. Louis Pizza. I contacted the Owner directly and dealt with him directly until they put up the website and have had nothing but great experiences with them.

      April 29, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • David

      Provel is great on salads. My wife and I make a salad with lettuce, diced apples, Provel, sunflower seeds, and Poppyseed dressing. It's amazing. I know I know, it sounds weird. But it's also great on regular salads. Also: open-faced sandwiches in the oven... French or Italian bread, garlic butter, ham or turkey, Provel on top, maybe a bit of paprika.

      April 29, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  7. Susan B

    Don't be haters. If you don't like it; don't eat it. Here's a few thoughts:
    Provel: It's processed. Big deal. Three real cheeses combined with an emulsifier so the fat and the protein don't separate and it stays creamy and hot. It has liquid smoke, maybe that's the flavor to which you object? Besides, with Provel you don't need to drain or pat off the grease before consuming. Just sayin'.
    Crust: It's thin. It's crispy. It doesn't have any yeast. It's non-traditional. Its advantages are that you fill up on toppings instead of crust, it isn't soggy, you don't need a plate and knife, fork and possibly a spoon to eat it. Oh, and did I mention its crispness allows for more toppings?
    Sauce: It's a Sicilian sauce with more oregano. The Hill is heavily influenced by Sicilian cooking and sweeter sauces are preferred.
    And a point: The at-home recipe will create a blended cheese mix, not a processed cheese, so why don't you try it before you dismiss the flavor out of hand?
    Keep an open mind and you just might discover an unexpected gem from St. Louis. We have others too...

    April 27, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • JCK

      Well said!

      July 21, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  8. Fredex

    Well, I gotta admit it's been a loooong time since I lived in St Louis, but I don't recall ever hearing of provel. Or maybe my Mom just never bought it.

    April 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • beth

      If you've had Imo's, Pasta House, or Joe/Lou Boccardi's pizza you've had it.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  9. SL Transplant

    Those ripping on STL pizza haven't given it a chance. I thought the same thing when I first tried Imo's. Yuck, where's all the dough? No bread crust! Now I see how this low-carb pizza was ahead of it's time. Much healthier than Chicago's deep dish. The toppings are the feature. You don't feel sick when your finished because you eat a big salad with it. The Toasted raviolis – I'm amazed that hasn't caught on nationally! Every time I eat Italian elsewhere I wonder where are the toasted raviolis are on the menu and the salads? Best hybrid-Italian in the country IMO

    April 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  10. Tammy

    I miss Cheese Crisps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_cheese_crisp).

    April 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  11. Erin

    I love provel on pizza and on another St. Louis specialty, Amighetti's sandwiches. However, I must share a story. A while back a family member was ill, and people kept bringing us food. Someone brought over salad fixings and a carton of provel from the grocery store. We had so much I took it home with me in my car, but I accidentally left the cheese in the car. I found it a month later under the seat, and there was not a trace of mold on it, or any indication that it had ever been a real, decomposable food. Just sharing. It's yummy, but it ain't cheese.

    April 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  12. HJD

    Awesome stuff! can't get enough. Pizza is just not the same without it. Moved to JAX, FL 4 years ago and we were hard pressed to find any pizza to stand up to STL Style. and I dont consider blending different cheeses processed, I think of artificial flavors and fillers that are tough to pronounce processed. I know you can get mexican blen or 3 cheese blend at any grocery store and I don't condier that processed. I think its just symantics

    April 25, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • rain

      If you live in Jacksonville, you should try out Picasso's. They serve a St. Louis style pizza which is actually pretty good! They also have Toasted Ravioli and Gooey Butter Cake!

      April 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
      • CentralFL

        For sure! If you are in JAX, you are closer than any of the rest of us in FL to St. Louis-style pizza! Picasso's is a pretty decent substitute. Their sauce is not as good, but they definitely have Provel and gooey butter cake!

        April 29, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  13. Jilly

    If you don't care for Provel, don't get it on your pizza. Go to one of the other pizzarias in town. Perhaps you prefer Pi (Snooty Squared) or one of those ghastly chain restaurant pizzas. If it really, really bothers you, though, you might need to move. St. Louis isn't going to give up Provel any time soon, and we wouldn't want you to be miserable for the rest of your lives.

    April 25, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • jaco

      I'm from St. Louis and comments like this just point out that a majority of the people who live in this town are insecure parochial rubes. Telling someone they 'better move' because they don't adore the mediocre style of pizza made here is the height of idiocy. But go on and scold people for not being just like you and having the same tastes of the herds of land cattle while the region continues to bleed population. After awhile you and the rest of the 'normal' St. Louisans will have the whole city to yourselves and you can all eat provel until you burst while you ask each other what high school you all went to, all 18,000 of you.

      April 25, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
      • scotch

        you're a douche

        April 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • cardinalnation75

          squared :-P

          April 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  14. StL Expat

    For all you cheese snobs who wouldn't put "processed" cheese on a pizza - define processed. Would it be three delicious REAL cheeses mashed together into a yummy, melty, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth tasty treat? I need a St Louie style pizza right now and I have a freezer full of provel just for these occasions...until I can get a real Imo's, that is.

    April 25, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  15. katfishnoco

    As a former "Da Regionite' (Chicago area), pizza meant thin crust with mozzarella. Moving to STL, I was appalled by provel and the odd sauce. My kids called it creamy tomato soup on a cracker.
    After 20 years I have grown fond of provel on those terrific St Louis salads (topped with sweet Italian dressing served with warm Italian bread and real butter-mmmmmmm) I even like provel on a St Louis pizza (salsicca please!) and over mostaccoli (muskacholly to my homies)
    Provel is unlike anything else and had its place in the food chain. I am so having t-ravs, STL pizza, salad, and an Urban Chestnut Zwickel.

    April 25, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  16. Stacey K

    We moved away from STL about 6 years ago, and we were also missing Provel. Love it or hate it, your choice, but we love it on our homemade pizzas. We found another substitute recipe that is quite good and not 'processed': 2 cups of shredded White American (this can also be tricky to find), 1 cup shredded Monterrey Jack and a couple of dashes of Liquid Smoke. Mix well and then use it on pizzas or salads. We buy a 5 lb block of the White American and 2.5 lbs of Mont Jack, shred it all with a food processor and measure it out into freezer bags. We then thaw a bag before use and add the liquid smoke before putting on the pizza.

    April 25, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  17. mikepomatto

    Provel tastes like feet smell.

    April 25, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  18. MP

    You can buy provel and have it shipped anywhere! http://www.itsastlouisthing.com/servlet/StoreFront

    April 25, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  19. Alex

    There are so many things good to eat in St Louis: toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, pork steaks, and slingers. But Provel? The first time I tried a St Louis style pizza, I asked someone "why is there processed cheese on this pizza???" Imagine putting Kraft single on top of a pizza and you'll get the idea.

    April 25, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  20. LynnAnn

    You people have unrefined tastes. The Lord himself would have provel cheese on his pizza.

    April 25, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • JCK

      Yes!

      July 21, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • Brian

      You are soooooo RIGHT LynnAnn – PROVEL is heavenly !!! Hard to find in Michigan so I get it when I go home to STL.

      December 29, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  21. cookiesandcurtains

    I grew up in St Louis, and moved away at age 22. For 27 years now I have "imported" provel back to my home in NC. I buy THIRTY pounds (yes 6-5 pound blocks) and bring it back with me. I use it on everything italian. My friends love it. I cannot do without my provel. I also import Louisa's toasted raviolis as well as the meat sauce... I used to bring salad dressings back as well, but i have started to tweak ones here to taste like the St Louis sweet italiian dressings.. Yum!

    April 25, 2013 at 7:20 am |
  22. Dennis

    I can't believe I read the whole article, I was hoping it was about Provolone.

    April 25, 2013 at 7:12 am |
    • Gru Yeres

      Not making much headway in that remedial reading comprehension class?

      April 25, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • uncle ruckus

      Hey Dennis, thanks for sharing your glaring idiocy. Good for a laugh. And almost a cry.

      May 14, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  23. david w

    Food of st. louis is not complete without toasted ravioli. Those crispy chewy breaded and fried raviolis dippd in marinara are a little bit of heaven. As are pork steaks grilled on real charcoal.

    April 24, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • Brian

      And Gooey Butter Cake from Kruta's in Collinsville. : – )

      December 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  24. Puggle

    Provel cheese is heavenly. You naysayers have immature palettes.

    April 24, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  25. Kendal cat production

    Is that used in Imo's pizza? I love imos pizza.

    April 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Jess

      It is. Love it!

      April 25, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  26. Ds

    St. Louis pizza is basically plastic cheese on a low sodium cracker

    April 24, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  27. Wastrel

    This person who wrotes about food doesn't know that Provel ils a brand name and not a kind of cheese.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • hentercenter

      Actually it is a type of cheese. Kraft is the brand that owns it.

      source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provel

      April 25, 2013 at 11:22 am |
      • uncle ruckus

        When, oh when will people quit citing Wikipedia!? It's open-source, for God's sake! Hello???

        May 14, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  28. sls

    When I arrived in STL for grad school and was presented with "the best pizza in town," I seriously considered packing up and going home. Fake cheese on a cracker (at the same price as a real pizza, no less). I agree that roped provel is, however, tolerable on a good Italian salad.

    April 24, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  29. ds

    Cook's Country (sister to America's Test Kitchen and Cooks Illustrated) did an episode on St. Louis pizza, and spent some time approximating Provel. Believe they used Ameican, Monterey Jack and liquid smoke. Join and their recipe can be yours. They detail making the crispy crust, developing the cheese substitute, and you get their sauce recipe and techniques, too.

    April 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  30. Jess

    Mmmmm Provel. I love to make my own pizzas with a mozzerella, cheddar, and Provel blend. Delish :D

    April 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  31. SidV

    As for provel, I can take it or leave it. As for St. Louis, can't live without it. You should just come home :-)

    April 24, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  32. darkstar

    Provel does not mold. How can you call that cheese?

    April 24, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  33. knikki2000

    I am not originally from St. Louis, but did live there for a few years and my family is still there. While I occasionally enjoy provel on a salad, it is terrible on pizza. Once it melts its turns into glue and it stuck to the roof of your mouth for hours.

    April 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  34. Jerry

    All this talk about Provel - I miss the good ole Pork Steak from STL - sort of found it at BJ's called the butt portion blade cut - not so attractive sounding like a "pork steak." No problem tho' finding liquid smoke in the NYC markets.

    April 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  35. BigMoneyP

    Provel, is without a doubt....disgusting! Run if you see it, don't walk away. People in St. Louis are brainwashed in thinking it's real cheese. There are peple working in pizza places there that where NO PROVEL t-shirts because they now how disgusting it is and want to make sure that people know they wouldn't touch it with a 10ft. pole in the making of their pizzas. It is greasy slime!

    April 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • BigMoneyP

      *Wear

      April 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • downWithDisease

        *people
        *know
        *Second to last sentence is a run-on
        (I hope you weren't educated in the fine city of St. Louis)

        The workers at "Pie" (the place with the "No Provel" shirts) wear their shirts simply as a marketing tactic (looks like THEY were able to brainwash YOU) to differentiate themselves from the much more popular and beloved St. Louis style pizza.

        Totally fine that you don't like provel... WEAR what you dig... right!?

        ...but damn... read a book or stay quiet.... you are making us St. Louisian's sounds like uneducated hicks.

        April 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
        • Ashlee

          its Pi, for crying out loud.

          April 25, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • downWithDisease

          Both are incorrect.... it is the mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

          But let's not split atoms. :-)

          April 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
        • uncle ruckus

          "you are making us St. Louisian's sounds like uneducated hicks."

          You're doing a fine job of that all by yourself. Lose the apostrophe in "St. Louisian's" as it isn't a possessive, drop the "s" in "sounds" and perhaps you won't come off as an uneducated hick.

          FAIL!!!

          May 14, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  36. F. Phillips

    Where does one fine "liquid smoke"?

    April 24, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • F. Phillips

      find

      April 24, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • Jerv

      Condiment isle.

      April 24, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Tommy Chong

      At your local Head Shop, Man.

      April 24, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • dagwud

      Walmart. Amazon. Even Cabela's, if you need it by the gallon.

      April 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Dan

      Liquid Smoke can be found in a little glass bottle about the size of a small Soy Sauce container. Actually, it should be near the Soy Sauce.

      May 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • uncle ruckus

      Google.

      Rotten ass...this may well be the most moronic thread I have ever visited.

      May 14, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  37. Brandi

    Granted, at first glance, putting processed cheese product on pizza does seem sacrilegious, but keep an open mind. Provel is rich, creamy, and sinfully good. My husband and I are St. Louisans transplanted to Indiana, and we "import" at least one 5 lb. block of the stuff whenever we make a trip back to visit family.

    April 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  38. angelalupton

    Provel is gross. It's like provolone and velveeta had a illegitimate baby and a mozzarella couple adopted it and tried to pass it off as a suitable pizza cheese.

    April 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • taniko

      I have to say I love your description here, very graphic - but since I've never had it, I'll give it a try when I can find it - perhaps a small try rather than a large one, based on this!

      April 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • dagwud

      That's about how I'd describe it. We got it on a pizza once not knowing what it was. The pizza just tasted "off," like something was heavily processed beyond recognition. That was when I looked up "provel." Yech.

      April 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  39. Martha Valenta

    Provelicious!

    April 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  40. Ed G.

    "Provel is a little hard to describe. It’s processed..." - stop right there!

    It might taste ok, but putting processed cheese on a pizza strikes me as odd. I wouldn't put Cheese Whiz or Velveeta on a pizza either.

    April 23, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • Gru Yeres

      All cheese is processed.

      April 24, 2013 at 6:12 am |
      • Mark L

        All chese is not processed, not even clolse. I dont think you understand what processed means when talking about chese

        April 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
        • Gru Yeres

          Read his comment again. I am making zero distinctions about what kind of cheese with regard to his comment because all cheeses are processed. JFGI If you didn't process cheese, you would be pouring milk on your pizza.

          April 25, 2013 at 7:42 am |
    • downWithDisease

      Yeah... because aside from the cheese everything else on pizza is 100% natural and plucked straight from the city rooftop gardens.

      April 25, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
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