(updated 9/28/2028) True story: St. Louis-born in a decidedly un-foodie time, I did not know that provel and provolone were two different cheeses until after I had moved to California and was married with a baby. Really. I had a sudden taste for one of those delicious house salads we used to get from Talayna’s back when there was only one enormous and dirty location in DeBaliviere, before it got all prettied up and moved. The salad was an enormous mound of iceberg lettuce with a few Greek olives, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and delicious gooey tubes of provel cheese, all tossed together with the house dressing, a garlicky creamy Italian that my BFF assured me her mother said was very close to Marie’s.
I made the salad that night with provolone and was disappointed. Where was that soft, gooey cheese I craved? I confessed to LL being confused that the provolone in California was so – different from my midwestern cheese.
“But we called it provel,” I reasoned. “Maybe there’s some difference.” And that’s when I learned they’re two completely different cheeses.
“Provel is like Velveeta,” he opined. “It’s processed. It’s not even cheese. I’ve never seen it around here.” To this day, I have no idea how my native California-husband knew about all those years ago when, at the time, even my all time favorite the late Anthony Bourdain hadn’t. He just knows things, it’s his superpower.
All St. Louisans know, though, that provel IS a kind of cheese, a pasteurized processed mixture of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone. It has a low melting point, which gives that gooey quality on salads and and that velvety quality on pizzas. It’s synonymous with St. Louis’s Imo’s pizza. People either love it or hate it, there’s not a lot of in-between.
For a while provel was just something I have once a year when I snuck in an Imo’s pizza on visits to my family. One year I hauled a 5-pound block of provel back in a suitcase and fobbed it off on friends. But then, I found a nice piece on a now-deleted CNN subpage with a recipe for provel. Homemade provel? Count me in.
I was suspicious of the added liquid smoke in the recipe, though. In my mind, provel isn’t a smokey cheese at all. This could be the make-it-or-break-it ingredient. I bought this Lazy Kettle brand Liquid Smoke that claims to be all natural with no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. I may earn a small commission if you click through to Amazon to purchase the liquid smoke.) The aroma was very strong to me, and so I used only 4 drops instead of the full teaspoon the original recipe called for. Then I melted the cheeses together and chilled.
My homemade provel was perfect. I knew it wasn’t just wishful thinking, because I made pizzas that night without letting anyone know I made the cheese. Kid One, a yearly Imo’s Pizza veteran, took a big bite of my provel-and-mozzarella topped pizza with bacon, tomato, and garden greens. BLT pizza, as it were. He face turned thoughtful. He took another bite and chewed more slowly, then asked, “What is this? It tastes like the pizza we get when we visit Grandma and Grandpa.” Yes. We were sharing childhood food memories from different places in time.
Homemade provel cheese
- 1 cup shredded white cheddar
- 1/2 cup shredded swiss
- 1/2 cup shredded provolone
- 4 drops liquid smoke
- Grate the three cheeses and place in a bowl
- Add liquid smoke and mix well
- Melt together in a non-stick pan on low heat, stirring frequently
- When the cheeses are melted together, stir one last time and move to a container.
- Let cool.
- Keep refrigerated.
Provel cheese is a St. Louis cultural icon with a sticky history. Blogger Andrew Mark Veety wrote this very well-researched piece complete with oral histories. Fascinating.