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Provel: An American Rhapsody

Ah Provel.
Shall I compare thee to a Missouri summer’s day?
Thou art more cheese-like and more sweat-inducing.
Rough voices may criticize, but hey
This is America, land of the free and cholesterol-producing.
For too long, St. Louis has been written off for its mediocre-to-horrible NFL franchise and its residency of the real-life-Mr.-Burns corporation Monsanto. People have ignored its most unique and glorious contribution to the world: the St. Louis–style pizza featuring the processed cheese product known as Provel (not to be mistaken with the recently-controversial “American” cheese).

What is Provel? Well, my friend, Provel is a delightful combination of Cheddar, Provolone, Swiss, and liquid smoke combined to look like something a drunk butcher might make in a meat grinder. It was patented in 1947, and no the name has nothing to do with Provolone and is merely gibberish. Why it is so popular in St. Louis and so unknown elsewhere is largely a mystery. It might be due to Imo’s, the cherished Provel Pizza institution found on nearly every St. Louis corner. What is clear is that Provel is the defining cheese-like product for the city on the Ol’ Mississip.

People eat this.
Photo Credit: Provel by Ann Dabney | CC

The attention Provel gets is normally derisive. Judah Friedlander (of 30 Rock fame) incorporates Provel regularly into stand-up acts. In an interview with Grub Street, he had this to say:

“When I looked at it, I thought I was on some kind of hidden-camera prank show. The cheese they use, Provel, is part provolone cheese product, part Swiss cheese product, and part white Cheddar product. When it melts, it’s just kind of a gluey consistency, and when it dries it’s just kind of plastic. It stinks—like, literally, it smells bad. The dough, they probably f***** it up as bad, or worse, than the cheese. They make their pizza with no yeast, so I would like to say it’s like a cracker or a round matzoh, but it’s like a really s***** stale cracker. And then they have barely any sauce on it and it seemed like it came out of a can 50 years ago. I’ve never seen a place miss all three elements of the pizza.”

OK, let’s just calm down. You know who else tried doing things a little different and still faces frequent criticism? That’s right—America. We’re not afraid to innovate, to mix things together and see what we get, to get a little weird sometimes. I’m not saying that always works out well, but it’s who we are, dammit, and hell if I’m going to stand by and let Provel take the fall. St. Louis has every right to be proud of their processed-cheese-product. We should all be proud of the greatest processed-cheese-product of all, which is how I refer to America, and how you should too.

I must admit that I’ve never actually tried Provel. To my dismay, it is not readily available to the East Coast–bound unless I want to order a five lb. block online. Which I don’t. But you absolutely should. And you should slather it on your burgers throighout your summer barbecues, because it is your freedom to do so. God Bless America.

Robbie Herbst

Robbie Herbst is a summer editorial intern and an undergrad at Dartmouth College, where he enjoys access to the unimaginably quaint cheese-makers of the upper valley. When he isn’t writing or playing violin, he likes to take bricks of Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar on long hikes through the White Mountains.