In Defense of Provel

Psst. You people who hate Provel – come closer. Can we talk?

I think I know why you loathe our infamous local cheese. It’s because it’s not mozzarella, right? Because a cheese – a processed cheese, no less – that is not mozzarella on a pizza makes you bridle and maybe want to write your congressman. It’s because Provel is mild in flavor, yes? Because ultimately, Provel is St. Louis’ lack of an NBA franchise. Provel is why Tennessee Williams and T.S. Eliot ran screaming from this burg as soon as they got out of short pants. Provel is our inferiority complex, made (barely) edible. In short, Provel is the taste of Midwestern shame.

Well, let’s just slow down here, m’kay?

First of all, yes, Provel is processed, although it is made from real cheese. It’s a blend of Provolone, Swiss and Cheddar cheeses, made in Wisconsin but, not unlike Sammy Hagar, more popular in St. Louis than anywhere else. Provel is put to use on St. Louis-style pizza (notably at Imo’s, of course), in ropes or flakes on Italian salads, and on sandwiches, like the tasty Italian sandwiches at Adriana’s on The Hill.

I’m not going to try to convince you that pizza – or anything else – made with Provel is tasty. Either you agree or you don’t. Personally, I like the taste and goopy texture of salty, smoky melted Provel over toppings, red sauce and thin, chewy crust on a pizza. (I like it 10 minutes later, too, when goopy has transmogrified into a mozzarella-like welter of golden-brown heaven.) I like pliant ropes of Provel tossed with salami, oily croutons, red onions, pimento and vinaigrette in a salad at any of the joints on The Hill. And I like it as a vital ingredient on a meatball sub or in Ruma’s Deli’s famous Gerber Sandwich, a St. Louis original with garlic butter, ham, Provel and paprika toasted and served open-faced.

Maybe there is a Provel gene, akin to the supposed cilantro gene that determines whether you like or hate that innocent herb. For those who love Provel, it’s an old buddy. But to the apoplectic minority, Provel will always be an unholy Frankenstein’s monster, a processed abomination that must be avoided at all costs.

Consider Provel in the same light as the Cheez Whiz in a Philly cheesesteak. You might not be proud that it’s processed. You might not even consider it real cheese. But it’s delicious. And, for better or for worse, it’s one of the regional touches that makes our local dishes part of who we are.