I have the best cheese in the world,” the vibrantly inked host says, shuffling to the fridge in his scuffed white shoes.
“I like cheese!” I call out idiotically, my inside voices escaping. I pour another cup from the growler of Sixpoint’s Eight Days of Wheat, the Brooklyn brewery’s refreshing summertime sipper. On the grill, spicy sausages plump and red peppers blister. It’s a languid back-deck BBQ, the kind occurring citywide—even here in Jersey City.
It’s not the distance. I’ll happily trek to Queens’ Caribbean Richmond Hill to devour Brown Betty Restaurant’s fluffy aloo balls, or consume cumin-laced lamb at Flushing’s Little Pepper. But the Jerz is a geographical and psychic obstacle, the butt of Brooklynites’ jokes, the same kind Manhattanites crack about Brooklyn: What pea brain lives in that backward backwater? Or perhaps I’m too miserly to pay $1.75 to PATH across the Hudson.
There was reason to fork over the fare. My girlfriend’s former co-worker and boyfriend relocated to a Jersey City loft. To celebrate, they hosted a BBQ, catnip to this grill-lover. Still, what type of boyfriend would I be if I easily succumbed to my girlfriend’s simple desires?
“I’ll go,” I say, pausing a few beats, like pregnant gals do before informing their hubbies of egg-sperm success, “provided that you buy my PATH ticket.”
“It’s never easy with you, is it?” she asks.
“That’s what makes this relationship so rewarding,” I reply, pulling on my meat shorts: frayed, cutoff jeans, the back pockets stained black with ash, grease and dried morsels of no fewer than five delicious animal species. And so we’re soon lounging on the wooden patio, packed with fragrant potted herbs and Styrofoam coolers stocked with icy Pabst. Cottonwood trees send their feathery seeds flying, creating a cotton-ball rainstorm. A few settle onto the grill and instantly incinerate. It’s hard to conjure a finer spring afternoon. I will soon ruin it.
“My mother sent me five pounds of this cheese,” the host says, proudly setting down a rectangular block of white, soft…something. “She shipped it in dry ice.”
“Moms are good like that,” I say. My mother, though, tends to send my girlfriend the lion’s share of gifts, perhaps encouraging her to put up with my ceaseless crap and give her the grandchildren she craves. “But what did your mom send you?”
“It’s Provel,” he says, in the reverential tones people speak of their lord savior.
“Come again?” I say, wondering why he omitted the -one. Provel, he explains, slicing the cheese into soft crumbles and sprinkling it over sizzling burgers, tastes like his St. Louis childhood. I grab a piece. His childhood tastes like adhesive caulk flavored with Liquid Smoke.
“This is not cheese,” I inform him, spitting on his sacred cow. And I’m right: Provel isn’t cheese. Since it lacks the USDA’s required moisture content, the St. Louis foodstuff is a white pasteurized cheese product. It’s constructed from cheddar, Swiss and provolone—Italian-style American cheese, if you may. Like Velveeta, Provel is soft and gooey at room temperature and possesses a low melting point. Its invention was deemed an improvement upon mozzarella, creating a pizza cheese that melted smoothly, without any stringy consistency.
Plastered across a cracker-crisp crust, smoky, gooey Provel defined St. Louis signa ture pizza. To thin-crust New Yorkers or deep-dish Chicagoans, this combination is pizza sacrilege. But to St. Louis natives, reared on Provel, it’s pizza as it was always meant to be. Taste buds sometimes have no reflection on taste. Instead, they’re conduits to comfort.
When I return to Dayton, Ohio, I book it to El Greco’s Pizza Villa. Since high school, I’ve dined at this shag-carpeted greasy spoon serving an idiosyncratic Italian-Mexican hybrid: Tacos are topped with provolone and green onions, then served with buttery garlic bread. It’s heretically delicious. And in my blue periods, I hunger for it fiercely, pacifying food to reset my inner equilibrium.
But I have consumed too much beer to connect the empathetic dots. “This does not instill my faith in St. Louis cooking,” I declare, forgetting the city’s lovely, liberally sauced ribs. His face darkens.The smoke billows. He rises to tend the grill, delivering medium-rare burgers to the gathered crowd— mine minus cheese.
“Next time, I’m bringing the cheese,” I joke, adding,“I’ll even cut it.” His cough, then silence, are ample clues that there won’t be a next time.