How Provel Cheese Became Popular In St. Louis

Processed cheese isn't for everyone. This convenience food was invented just prior to World War I and did come in handy in the trenches. But for some reason, people kept on eating it after the doughboys came home. Admittedly, the stuff does have its place, that being atop a fast-food burger or a Philly cheesesteak "wit wiz," but not everybody's all that enthused about it. St. Louisans, however, stand out as a notable exception. While the 314 is home to many tasty foods such as gooey butter cake, toasted ravioli, and the St. Paul sandwich, it also has a peculiar passion for a particular type of processed cheese known as Provel.

Provel is a blend of cheddar, provolone, and Swiss that's sold either in bricks or cheesy ropes in groceries all over St. Louis, although it's generally not the sort of thing you're likely to find too far outside the city's borders. Provel's main attraction is the fact that it melts pretty easily (which is also a selling point for Velveeta and other processed cheeses) and it was created as a topping for St. Louis-style pizza, a regional style characterized by its cracker-thin crust and square-cut slices. Once pizza makers adopted Provel as the style's signature cheese, its popularity (in a limited area, that is) was assured.

One specific pizza chain cemented Provel's status

If there's one name that's practically synonymous with Provel, it would be Imo's. This St. Louis-based pizza chain is also the cheese's biggest purveyor — not just because people purchase profuse amounts of Provel-topped pizza, but also because it actually owns the distribution rights. The first Imo's location opened in 1964 and the owners used to buy Provel for their St. Louis-style pizzas quite literally out of the trunk of some guy's car. Once their cheese connection died, that prompted them to secure the distributorship and ensure a steady cheese supply. It's a good thing they did, since there are now almost 100 locations of the pizza chain and each one uses about 25,000 pounds of Provel per year.

Even in St. Louis, Provel isn't universally beloved as there are those who consider its taste akin to wax or plastic. One local restaurant, the popular PI Pizza, specializes in Provel-free pies — the menu's only cheese choice is "mozz," undoubtedly a holdover from a time when abbrevs were considered totes adorbs. PI, which also has outposts in Washington, D.C. and, oddly enough, Baghdad (yes, the one in Iraq), goes so far as to feature server t-shirts with a no-Provel logo. Co-owner Chris Sommers has told NPR, however, that these uniforms can be considered "more of a statement than a dislike of the product" and admits the anti-Provel stance was meant to help his restaurant stand out and boost its bottom line.