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.
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?
Then she started digging near the provolone.
SW: This it?
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?
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.
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.
1 cup grated white cheddar cheese
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.
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