Part I - St. Louis, Missouri: A Convoluted Food History
There may be no city in America with a food history as confusing and misunderstood than St. Louis, Missouri. Sitting at the confluence of food history is The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly known as the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Indeed it appears that the eyes of the country were on St. Louis in 1904 -- it also hosted the 1904 Summer Olympics and Democratic National Convention as part of the World's Fair events.
Records indicate that between 18 and 20 million people passed through the World's Fair gates between April and December 1904 -- providing an opportunity to showcase innovation and the technological development of the time. Truth be told, innovation did not stop at technology, it also included many foods and products that are standards of American culture today like the hamburger, the hot dog, iced tea, Dr. Pepper, puffed rice and the waffle ice cream cone. However, with the exception of the waffle cone, none of these items were invented at or for the fair. Instead it was the first time that these items were viewed and purchased in one location by such a large population of people.
So what does that leave the Gateway City to claim as its very own?
Toasted ravioli comes to mind, but its lineage is called into question when you dig a bit and discover a traditional Sicilian desert called Fravioli di Carnevale -- deep fried pillows of dough filled with ricotta cheese and cinnamon. The similarity of the two dishes clouds the origins of the much loved "t-rav".
Then there is a dish called Gooey Butter Cake -- a confection of butter, yellow cake mix, eggs and cream cheese. While the oral and written history indicate multiple creators of the Gooey Butter Cake, all the stories point to St. Louis bakers in the 1930's and 40's. In the case of the Gooey butter Cake, is safe to say that the dish was invented here.
Rounding out the list of purely unique St. Louis foods is a product that was undoubtably invented in and for the citizens of St. Louis, Provel. Provel is a white pasteurized process cheese made of cheddar, swiss, and provolone. Provel is the signature ingredient in a St. Louis style pizza, identifiable by its thin crust, toppings that run from edge to edge and the shape servings are cut into -- squares. The use of Provel is not limited to pizzas in St. Louis, it can also be found on salads, pastas and sandwiches.
Like many regional specialties -- chicken wings and cheesesteaks come to mind -- the documented facts regarding Provels origin and history are loosely woven with family and customer lore, often making it near impossible to determine a time line from product creation to wide adoption. Provel its seems, is no different.
What follows is an attempt to untangle the history of Provel or at least collect its history and legend in one place. As such it is reasonable that this page will be updated from time to time.
Part II - Provel. What is it?
According to Title 21, Part 133 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Provel is a pasteurized process cheese, a product created through the combination of several different types of cheese -- in this case cheddar, swiss and provolone. Simply put, the naming convention (pasteurized process cheese vs cheese) comes down to government mandated amounts of moisture and milk fat contained within the end product. Products that meet the guidelines are legally allowed to be marketed as cheese, while products not meeting the prescribed criteria are required to be labeled in a way that highlights the difference for the consumer.
The name Provel is trademarked and dates back to the first half of the 20th century. Provel originally was produced by the Hoffman Cheese Company of Wisconsin. Today the trademark for Provel is held by the Churny Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Kraft Foods.
Part III - Though The Years
For a product like Provel, which for the most part is produced for and consumed in St. Louis, there is little in the way of a definitive history in the public record. The most often quoted history for Provel can be traced to a paragraph written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch food critic Joe Bonwich:
"Provel was invented specifically for St. Louis-style pizza more than a half-century ago by the downtown firm Costa Grocery (now Roma Grocery on the Hill, a primarily Italian St. Louis neighborhood), in collaboration with the Hoffman dairy company of Wisconsin (now part of Kraft Foods). Provel was developed to meet perceived demand for a pizza cheese with a “clean bite”: one that melts well but breaks off nicely when bitten."
Through the years there has been reporting in the St. Louis media that supports this history. However some digging has exposed competing claims that both support and challenge the historical record.
Before getting into the "who?" of Provel, it would be a good idea to look at the "why?". Its widely accepted that without the St. Louis style pizza, there would probably be no Provel. At the same time, without a man named Edward Imo, there might not be a St. Louis style pizza, or perhaps not such a specific example of the style. Edward Imo is a champion of all things topped in Provel and the person responsible for a local pizza empire that bears his family name -- Imo's Pizza.
Multiple sources suggest a link between Ed Imo and Provel formed after he reportedly began testing the product at a popular local pizza establishment named Helen's Pizza before striking out to open his first pizzeria in 1964. However in an interview I conducted with Ed and Margie Imo, both stated that they have no prior relationship with a pizzeria named Helen's, although they do believe that Helen's existed and sold pizza.
While not unique to St. Louis, Imo indeed helped to place the stamp of the Gateway City on the thin crust style. Forgoing a traditional crust with a "bone" at the edges of the pie, Imo spread toppings across the pie and used Provel in the place of mozzarella -- in contrast to thin crust pizzas found on the East Coast and Chicago.
Indeed it is the physical properties of Provel that make it the perfect match for St. Louis style pizza. The "clean bite" that Bonwich writes about makes sense when one thinks about the cracker thin crust that a layer of Prove rides upon. For a pizza that is cut into squares, its important to have a cheese that will not stretch and drip off the edges, especially as there is little besides a small section of pizza for the diner to grip onto. For the St. Louis style pizza -- form follows function -- the shape and composition of the crust is made for the delivery of toppings and ultimately Provel.
Ed Imo -- who's single pizza shop has grown into 100 franchises, each using approximately 25,000 pounds of Provel each year -- has earned his place as the evangelist for Provel, but he was not its creator. History and reporting points at another St. Louisian, Tony Costa, who owned a wholesale grocery near Seventh and Cole in the city of St. Louis -- an area on the periphery of what is now the Edwards Jones Dome. According to Abe Pezzani, president of the Roma Grocery Company, it was Costa who worked with food scientists from the Hoffman Cheese company to create Provel in the early 1960's.
Pezzani also provides an oral history regarding Ed Imo and his experimentation with Provel before opening his first pizza shop. Pezzani's retelling of the tale carries weight in St. Louis, as his company, Roma, purchased Costa's and is the primary source of Provel in St. Louis, including sourcing to Ed Imo's long lived pizza franchise.
Part IV - Lingering Issues
It would seem that the history of Provel has been written with the help of Abe Pezzani, who is indeed in a position to help document its path from food science in the 1960's to a beloved regional product and eventual pizza empire. However, like conflicting histories of chicken wings in Buffalo and cheese steaks in Philadelphia, it would appear that there is another competing claim to the history of Provel, a second and substantially dimmer branch of the family tree.
That story belongs to a grocer named John Sigillito and takes place almost 20 years before Tony Costa was reported to have helped invent Provel. The Imo's support this in part, suggesting that they remember hearing that the Sigillito's sold Provel at their downtown grocery. As told by John's wife Mary, Sigillito owned an an Italian food shop at Seventh and Franklin Avenue in St. Louis named International Food Products. According to Mary Sigillito:
"My husband (John) introduced provel cheese to St. Louis in the 1940s. Other people claimed they did, but we liquidated in 1954 and before that we were the sole distributors of provel in the area.
Provel was made by the Hoffman brothers in Wisconsin. It's a blend of provolone, cheddar and Swiss. The pizzerias liked this because they could use less, and it wouldn't get stringy and leave a mess on their clothes. The people who ate it liked the flavor and the convenience of not having the string. My husband introduced it to the pizzerias."
Jim Sigillito, the great nephew of John Sigillito provided the following family history via email after this post was initally published to help support Mary Sigillito's claim to the history of Provel:
"John Sigillito, who did in fact introduce Provel cheese to St. Louis through his downtown grocery, was my great uncle, the older brother of my grandfather Oreste Sigillito. My grandfather came to the US with his parents as an infant in 1901 - John and the rest of his siblings remained in Italy, raised with other famillies. John served in the Italian army in WW1 in N. Africa, riding camels in the infantry. He came to the US and St.Louis as a young man. His parents had a grocery on West Park near Manchester Rd and after he married Mary they opened their grocery business in downtown St. Louis.
Your description of the Provel history is accurate - and the dates involved pretty much bear out the fact that John Sigillito did first introduce Provel cheese to St. Louis. Then, after he and his wife closed their business in the 1950's, his friends who operated the remaining Italian downtown grocery, which was known as Italo-American, continued to promote and distribute the product. Italo-American was an old fashioned wooden floored grocery, with dried salami and cheese hanging and barrels of olives, and boxes of dried cod - and the smells were great!! I have great memories as a kid going there and getting samples of the salami and cheese and olives. The folks at Italo American were all friends of my Uncle John and Aunt Mary and treated us very well because of our relation to them. The Italo Amercian store remained open downtown until the area was razed for construction in the 70's. That's when the business moved to the Hill, where it still operated under the name Italo American for several years and continued to have a small retail storefront in addition to their wholesale business. If I remember right it didn't come to be knowm as Roma until sometime in the early 1980's when the retail storefront was closed - at least I remember still going there to buy cheese when I was in college around 1981."
Part V - Loose Ends
While there are a few differences between the two histories, the back story is essentially the same - the desire for a "clean bite" for St. Louis style pizza. It would appear that this part of the story is accurate, even if it originates from multiple sources.
Of interest is the location of Sigillito's shop - Seventh and Franklin, an address that no longer exists. A check of current St. Louis City maps shows that Franklin ends before it meets Jefferson Ave, but that is because the section of Franklin running deep into the city was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. What was Franklin eventually runs into what is now the America's Center and Edward Jones Dome. The intersection of what would be Franklin and Seventh sits in the middle of the sprawling complex, which was built in 1977.
While the physical location International Food Products is long gone, it would have sat a block from Tony Costa's grocery near Seventh and Cole. The proximity of the two locations is hard to ignore.
We know that Edward Imo experimented with Provel before opening his own pizzeria in 1964. However, Mary Sigillito claims that her husband John began introducing Provel to pizzerias before his businesses closed ten years earlier. Both John and Mary Sigillito have passed away, so digging into which pizzerias John worked with, or if he was known to Edward Imo remains and open question.
Lastly, both stories point to the Hoffman Cheese Company of Wisconsin as being the product development arm of this story. Of note -- a succession of corporate mergers has left important aspects of Provel's history in the dark. Indeed, it appears that Kraft is unable or unwilling to assist with information contained in within its corporate archives. Personally my attempts to request information from Kraft have yet to result in a reply. It would appear Joe Bonwich has had similar results in his research. Bonwich writes:
"Hoffman Cheese got gobbled up in several successive corporate mergers, and Provel is now made by Churny Co., a subsidiary of Kraft Foods. The massive food conglomerate, though, doesn't seem to know it has provel in its portfolio. Of more than 3,300 recipes on the Kraft consumer site that contain cheese, none uses provel."
Part VI - Closing
Of all the foods associated with St. Louis, none is more synonymous with the city than Provel. It is a litmus test of sorts, helping to identify who is from, who has left and who happens to be passing though St. Louis. For people from St. Louis, it means pride and childhood memories. For people who have left St. Louis, it offers a sense of nostalgia and perhaps homesickness. For those passing though, even if the stay is for years or even decades, it is a puzzlement and a source of contention between those who "get it" and those who do not.
Part VII - St. Louis - Important Dates and Locations For Provel
View A Brief History Of Provel in a larger map
Part VIII - References
The Theory of PROVELATIVITY: Family Ties Pave The Way To Provel's Enduring Popularity, April 11, 2007, Joe Bonwich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
She's Marvelous, And So Is Provel, October 17, 2007, Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Personal correspondence with Jim Sigillito, September, 2010
Interview With Ed and Margie Imo, September, 2010