“…The hell is wrong with your taste buds?”
~AFFotD’s Resident Food Critic
St. Louis. We don’t ever really know how to talk about the second largest city in the state of Missouri. For a time in the 1800s, it appeared that St. Louis, and not Chicago, would grow into the main population center of the Midwest, but the city’s leaders actively fought against the proliferation of railroads and greatly stunted its growth during the largest population boon the area would ever see. Still, it’s by no means a small town—while the population of 300,000 ranks it as the 58th largest city in the nation, the whole metro area has nearly three million residents, good enough for the 19th largest market in the nation. Hell, they’re big enough to warrant a good hockey team, a usually not that good football team, and a baseball team filled with the most frustratingly smug fans in all of the nation. They’re a real city, and honestly it’s kind of condescending of us to spend so much effort trying to bring that point home.
St. Louis has culture, is what we’re saying—you could probably argue that they have more regionally specific cultural touchstones than most similarly sized cities, but that might be us giving the Arch too much credit. And where there is culture, there is food. And in St. Louis’s case, where there’s food…well, things get weird. We’ve talked about it before in passing, but we’re going to go into some more detail for you, because so far, in our extensive search for weird food in America, St. Louis has the title of…
St. Louis: America’s Weirdest Culinary City
We fully expect St. Louis residents to passive aggressively whine about us referring to their culinary traditions as weird, but weird is not necessarily bad. Now, no, a lot of St. Louis food is utterly garbage (come on, how do you fuck up a pizza?) but there are actual foods that we totally support. As a general rule, if you deep fry things, or make things markedly unhealthy, we’re going to give that food our full support (because healthy food is pointless, and really living ten years less but eating much tastier things doesn’t really matter in the scheme of time being infinite, right?) so we’ll make sure to salute the city for the instances where they make stuff that is appropriately American. It just means that even when they make good food, there’s something weird about it.
Here is a slightly incomplete list of St. Louis foods, listed from best to worst, to really drive home how strange the St. Louis culinary tradition truly is.
We love the Slinger as a food dish so much we have a hard time even putting it into words, but it also perfectly represents the Freakshow Circus aspect lurking behind even the best St. Louis dishes. St. Louis created this as a late-night (read as- drunk) meal, or possibly a way to kill people sensitive to grease. If we had to guess, we’d say that the first Slinger was made when two drunks listed off diner food they liked and the line cook didn’t realize they weren’t asking them all to be put together on the same plate. It starts off with a bed of hash browns topped two hamburger patties. Add two eggs, and douse the whole thing in chili con carne, cheese (American or cheddar) and onions and you’ve got yourself a diagnosable heart disease. Wait, no, Slinger, we meant to say you have yourself a Slinger.
It’s delicious, but also, what the fuck leads to this being made? There’s drunk logic, and then there’s St. Louis drunk logic, which apparently operates under the assumption that the only way to prevent hangovers is to put all the calories consumed in total by the population of Wyoming on a given day on a plate in a diner. Listen, on its own, this is just a commendable, awesome thing that is delicious drunk even if finishing it feels like a game of Jenga you’re playing with your cholesterol levels. But looking through the lens of St. Louis cuisine, this is more than just a food dish that makes you think, “Okay, I guess I see what they’re doing, but who on Earth would even think of combining all these things?” This is a representation of the pinnacle of St. Louis food, and the highest heights it can achieve, and it’s still something that, if you cooked it up for someone unfamiliar with it, would lead that person to say, “Um…what the fuck is this?”
When people (like us) make fun of St. Louis cuisine, the immediate and visceral response from the personality type that would be grievously offended by such statements always involves talking about Toasted Ravioli. “If St. Louis food is so bad, what about Toasted Ravioli, huh? It’s deep-fried breaded ravioli, and it’s delicious! Checkmate!” And they are right—Toasted Ravioli is exactly that, and it’s a very delicious food, and St. Louis should be proud of it. But like, and we say this with the full realization that it’s way more hyperbolic than the situation requires, and we’re not trying to make comparisons between the two but like…you know, a few of the watercolors that Hitler painted were very pretty as well. You can make a good thing from a basic idea (“huh, deep fried things is good, let’s try to deep fry cheese pasta pockets”) and still be the type that doesn’t understand how taste buds work when inventing a pizza style.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’re here to focus on Toasted Ravioli, which is a great idea and delicious. Most likely, it originated in “The Hill,” the Italian neighborhood of St. Louis, with both probably apocryphal accounts of its invention claiming that a chef at an Italian restaurant accidentally dropped some ravioli into oil instead of water and instead of saying, “Goddamn it” and tossing it, they tasted it and realized it was delicious. Either way it probably started appearing on menus in the late 40s or early 50s, and generally consists of either meat or cheese wrapped in square ravioli which is then breaded and deep fried until the pasta becomes crispy, dry and golden brown, which is where the toasted moniker comes into place. Typically, this is served with marinara sauce for dipping and Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, though it’s possible you won’t have those two things if you’re an AFFotD writer trying to get service in St. Louis after writing this article.
But seriously, this is very tasty, congratulations St. Louis, you did good work here.
St. Louis-Style BBQ (Including Pork Steak and St. Louis-style Ribs)
St. Louis really wants to have its own “version” of barbeque, but it really doesn’t, they just do barbeque differently in the same way that every city has a slight tweak on barbecue. Hell, you can find a difference in barbecue styles between the south and north sides of Chicago, but to compare that with a version of barbecue that’s actually nationally known would be silly. But St. Louis is so weird and insistent on their food being unique that they insist that St. Louis-style barbecue is totally a thing, even if the actual Wikipedia page for it admits that it “is typically not included on the list of major styles of barbecue in the United States.”
Now listen. Barbecue is fine. It’s good, but we’re well aware that we don’t get as obsessed over it as most people do. It’s basically meat and sauce, which are good things, and though we kind of expected St. Louis to completely ruin barbecue and honestly, while they didn’t ruin it, they just lucked out that everyone pretty much loves sweet barbeque sauces, which is why people who are into barbeque actually do tend to laud what St. Louis does to their meat in this one particular instance. But that’s besides the point-apart from their sweeter wet sauce, their barbecue is grilled, and then sauced, as opposed to dry-rubbed and slow-smoked. If that sounds like a less effective and delicious approach that would yield less tender meat, you’re probably right, but we’re no food scientists. We’re just slightly drunk Americans riling an entire city into politely snarky Midwestern anger.
St. Louis uses a shitload of sauce on their meat to counteract the fact that they go out of their fucking way to prepare their meat in a way that’s going to minimize the “meat pulling off the bone” parts of barbecue that we as a nation love. That sauce (which, literally, their barbecue is just drowning in the shit) is tomato based, with the three most common descriptors being “very sweet”, “sticky” and “acidic” which is a terrible combination of descriptive words for anything but grilled meats. They apparently use more barbecue sauce per capita than any other city in the nation, which is a horrifying thing to think about here. God, you are literally a mess, St. Louis. We’re sure you really like it, and we know that people like their sweet barbecue sauces everywhere, but you guys have got to learn to calm the fuck down about your food every now and then and not just hyperactively shaking a bunch of sweet ketchup to drown your food because some people think it tastes kind of good. Just breath, St. Louis. Breath.
As part of their barbecue, St. Louis residents came up with a specific cut of rib, so there is a St. Louis cut of pork ribs out there (removing the sternum, cartilage, and rib tips to make a rectangular-shaped rack) which, you know, is just a cut of ribs. St. Louis is really excited that they came up with a specific way of cutting up a dead animal, basically. There’s also pork steak, which is shoulder cut of pork and slow cooked until it’s tender, like a steak. That’s usually mentioned in the same general culinary genre as St. Louis barbecue with the ribs, and while the meat cuts sound fine (like, hard to go wrong when you’re using meat) and we’re sure this is better than we’re giving it credit for, we’re still not impressed.
Honestly, we probably should have included the Prosperity Sandwich in our article about open faced sandwiches, because this is basically St. Louis’s version of the Hot Brown. The Hot Brown, for those that don’t remember, is an open face sandwich consisting of a piece of white toast covered with turkey, a Mornay cheese, and served with bacon. The Prosperity Sandwich, which originated at the Mayfair Hotel in the 1920s and finds itself still called the Hot Brown by some, is pretty much the same thing, only with a slightly different cheese recipe. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this entry—it’s bread covered in cheese and bacon, which is an easy way to our hearts, but it’s not exactly a St. Louis invention, it’s just a knock-off of a Kentucky sandwich that they’re busy trying to take credit for. We’re onto your games, St. Louis.
We’ve already talked about this sandwich, also in our open faced sandwiches article, but we’ll rehash this for you, which strikes us as “eh” but also as “trying so hard to have a specific regional identity that you’re sacrificing flavors just to use your bullshit St. Louis cheese.” The Gerber Sandwich was created in 1973 at Ruma’s Deli, named after Dick Gerber (why he doesn’t ask to go by Richard, we’ll never know). It’s built by placing garlic butter, ham, Provel, and paprika on top of half a section of Italian or French bread and toasting the end result. It’s garlic bread and ham with cheese, when you stop dancing around the point, which are all things that taste good! This would be even better if you used provolone instead of Provel (which you’re allowed to do) but the reason we drop this a click below the other St. Louis open sandwich is that Provel is an option, and we just, out of spite towards their pizza, have to knock their weird processed cheese down a few pegs.
The Concrete (aka the Blizzard)
Before Dairy Queen gave us the Blizzard, the St. Louis ice cream shop Ted Drewes invented the Concrete, which mixed frozen custard into a milkshake so thick you could hang a spoon in it upside down. Before we get into the Concrete, which is delicious but also seems to base its entire identity on the honestly arbitrary ability to hang a spoon from it, can we just address the name of the shop? Ted Drewes? Is it just us, or does this seem like a very odd name for an ice cream shop? A first and a last name, without a possessive apostrophe? That’s not normal, St. Louis. We can’t just open up a hamburger shop and call it Johnny Roosevelt and expect people to know what we’re talking about. Go as Ted’s. or Drewes’s. Or Ted Drewes’s if you’re that self-focused, but come on. Anyway, Ted Drewes was founded in 1930, and has two locations, though one is only open during the summer months, and around the time of its founding, Drewes came up with the concrete, which just mixed their custard with a combination of ingredients smashed in.
They take a lot of pride for the fact that you can hold the cup upside down without any of it sliding out, which, like, does that really matter? That just seems like it’d be a pain in the ass to eat. But, hey, it sounds good. Custard with things in it is good. We’d eat this and not complain.
Gooey Butter Cake
More famous than the Concrete (or less, who knows, to be fair its main claim to fame was being embraced by Paula Deen but she’ll embrace anything that’s filled with butter and likely invented by white people) is the Gooey Butter Cake, which is delicious because it is simple and filled with sugar, but appropriately…St. Louis because a popular origin story states it came from a chef fucking up a basic cake recipe by reversing the proportions of butter and flour which, like, how do you even do that? That’s not a mistake a baker makes, that’s a mistake your five year old son makes when he tries to whip up pancakes for you in bed and ruins the fucking kitchen in the process.
The actual story is thankfully not so bad—John Hoffman owned a bakery that had two kinds of butter “smears”—a gooey butter and a deep butter. The latter was used for coffee cakes, and the former was used as a pastry adhesive for Danish rolls. A new chef, when making deep butter cakes, accidentally used the gooey butter cakes, and since this was during the depression (it was invented in the 1930s) instead of throwing the result away, they sold it, and it proved to be popular.
That inefficient new employee training thus gave us the Gooey Butter Cake, a flat and dense cake at the bottom, with a “gooey butter” top section which is cut into squares like a brownie and served as a variation of a coffee cake, as opposed to an actual dessert cake. When made at home, the bottom layer uses a box cake mix, while the top layer mixes cream cheese and eggs and is dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Butter factors heavily in both parts of the recipe—hell, that Paula Deen link we sent you calls for sixteen tablespoons of butter, which, holy shit St. Louis who are you trying to kill with this? It’s rich, it’s buttery, it tastes pretty good despite initially causing you some misgivings, and it’s not something that you’d come up with on your own when thinking about “food” that “humans enjoy” which makes it pretty accurate representative of St. Louis cuisine.
Oh here we fucking go. Listen, we love cheese as much as the next American. Hell, probably more than the next American (unless the next American is from Wisconsin, which, like, we can’t top them there). But Provel is just pointless, and St. Louis’s bizarre backing of this heavily processed white cheese blend of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone seems to come from childish spite at this point. “We don’t care if you’re making fun of it, it’s ours, we’ll put it on our pizza and our Gerber sandwiches!” At the same time, people defending Provel would cede it’s an “acquired taste” which you might recognize as the same way people describe Moxie and Vegemite and a whole lot of other things that people mostly only consume because they lost a bet.
It was invented on The Hill, like apparently most of the food of St. Louis, in 1947 (or at least, the name has been used since then) specifically to serve as a pizza cheese. The problem here, however, is that St. Louis is trusting their pizza to a manmade processed cheese that was invented in the World War II era, which doesn’t exactly represtent the pinnacle of American culinary expertise. It’s now produced by Kraft, who sells two million pounds of it a year, largely to cover St. Louis’s garbage pizza. Which is garbage.
Provel is this far down because it has the consistence of a fucking candle, but also partly because of its roll in supplying people with St. Louis-style pizza, which we are on record as stating is the worst pizza in America, and that’s an opinion that we’d not even try to defend because anyone disagreeing with it is clearly so wrong that they lost their sense of taste and smell during a fireworks accident as a child.
This is part of the St. Louis Barbeque but we’re not sullying that entry further by including this. These are cooked pig noses. They are prepared by “removing the pig’s nostrils and cooking the remaining meat until crispy” which sounds like some serial killer shit like woah. Listen, we’re sure they taste fine, because even the gross parts of the pig are normally still pretty tasty, but you’re relishing in this concept a little too excitedly. “Yeah, we just…cut off the fuckers’ noses and just…cook them till they can’t be cooked no more, then we eat them whole and check in on the basement to see how the soundproofing is holding up.” Y’all are some psychos with this, St. Louis.
St. Paul Sandwich
We covered this in our regional sandwich of the Midwest series, but it still bears repeating that this sandwich is fucking weird and kind of gross. If you’re not a regular reader (hi there, St. Louis resident who is hate reading this after seeing someone complain about this article on Facebook) and are unaware of what’s involved in this sandwich (not unreasonable—even in St. Louis this is a fairly niche sandwich) it’s just an egg foo young patty topped with hamburger toppings and served on white bread. Chinese restaurants in St. Louis began selling it in the 1940s as a way to attract American customers—while this was a good 60 years before irony came in concentrated enough doses for people to get behind this idea, it has managed to still hang around certain establishments no matter how much the sane members of our population want it to go away—sort of like how smallpox still exists in secured labs.
This would easily be the most upsetting, unappetizing meal you could get in most culinary cities, but not so in St. Louis. That’s because those Imo’s loving sons of bitches can’t stop trying to defend…
St. Louis Pizza
Listen, we’ve touched this topic throughout this entire article. We’ve written about it before. We’re pretty sure we’ve already linked to that last link here too. You know we hate it, we know that those who rush to defend it need to, you know, not. If you like St. Louis-style pizza, we can only assume you were raised on it and it’s a sort of Pavlovian-comfort-food-Stockholm-Syndrome thing, which is fine! Well, it’s not fine, but it’s not a knock on you, in fact, we just feel sorry for you. The rest of you, that tried this as an adult and adopted it as something you like? There’s something wrong with y’all.
St. Louis-style pizza manages to make one of the best things on Earth (pizza) and mangle it in ways that are simply baffling. A pizza needs just three toppings to be a pizza—cheese, crust, and sauce. Here’s the dirty secret—pizza is hard to fuck up. It truly is. If two out of those three ingredients are serviceable, you still have good pizza. You can get away with having two of those ingredients being total shit, and if the third ingredient is spectacular that’s enough to save it. St. Louis, however, mutilates every single aspect of the pizza.
The crust? Thin and without yeast, they say it’s “cracker-like” because that makes it sound slightly more appetizing than admitting that your pizza base is literally a giant fucking cracker. It’s a cracker! Sometimes, when our staffers want a tasty snack, they put some tomato sauce and cheese on a Triscuit and put it in the toaster oven for a bit, but that’s just a lazy person snack, not the basis for a fucking pizza style made by a restaurant chain with 90 locations.
The cheese? Fucking Provel. If you want us to elaborate on that more than we already have earlier in this article, then fine. We’d add—motherfucking Provel.
And the sauce. Weirdly sweet and replacing basil (amazing on pizza) with oregano (that stuff that you like to shake on your pizza when you eat out despite the sad realization that no matter how much you put on the flavor will be overpowered by that one single crushed red pepper seed you flaked on there), the sauce is probably the best part of the pizza, which means to say we like their sauce about as much as we like… oh, let’s say, Sbarro’s pizza sauce. And if you’re someone that unironically likes Sbarro’s pizza sauce, we’d say aww honey, but then would counter with…just think about whatever pizza they’d serve with your hot lunches in school, and that’s about St. Louis sauce quality.
Sometimes you can take three mediocre, or even bad things, and through science or magic or possibly some mild blunt brain trauma, it’ll end up tasting surprisingly good. St. Louis pizza is not one of those instances. It is bad, it is rotten, and it is really weird.
So there you have it, our semi-comprehensive run down of St. Louis’s strange culinary traditions. It’s safe to say that every St. Louis resident who doesn’t have a moderate sense of humor or ability to laugh at his or herself has officially blocked this site and sent some hate mail our way, but if a few of you have stayed on we’ll just close off with some calm, placating words, so as not to antagonize you any further.