St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay received a cheerful note last week. It came from Lauren M. She’s a student at the Kirksey Middle School, in Rogers, Arkansas.
The subject was a school project about St. Louis and its heritage. She asked for the mayor’s assistance. He was happy to give it.
Rogers, after all, has a strong connection to St. Louis, one forged in steel. In 1881, soon after Rogers' founding in the northwestern part of the state, the town became the first Arkansas stop on the old St. Louis to San Francisco Railroad — better known as the “Frisco” line — and continued, so, for nearly a century.
Lauren sought advice on a few St. Louis history basics. She asked when St. Louis was founded. The answer, of course, is 1764 — with the city now celebrating its 250th birthday.
She asked about the city’s namesake. The answer was at hand. On the day HER note arrived this site had posted an extended article about Louis IX — St. Louis, King of France, in celebration of the 800th anniversary of his birth. It had everything she would want to know about the human and saintly sides of the City of St. Louis' patron.
Lauren was interested in St. Louis commercial history, specifically, which “important companies”got their start here. Such a list would be perilous to assemble, because it would be so long and we would worry that one or more important companies might be overlooked and understandably take offense.
Lauren could start out by checking out the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. companies. This is something she as an Arkansan may be familiar with, since Walmart, headquartered in nearby Bentonville, has been at or near the top of the list for years.
St. Louis also has been well represented on the Fortune 500 list. We've had local entries in virtually every field of enterprise, including aerospace, agricultural, banking, brewing, chemicals, and computing — to name just a few categories beginning with the letters A through C!
Lauren rolled out her toughest question first: “What kind of culture is in St. Louis?” she asked.
Good question. The short answer is, all kinds -- good and bad.
For much of its history, too much of St. Louis culture was devoted to segregating people by class and race. That has changed. For many years St. Louis has worked to distinguish itself in the opposite way, to become known as the place it has steadily become. Today’s St. Louis culture welcomes and embraces all people. It is a place that demonstrates with words and deeds that diversity is its greatest asset, that respects all people, and that works together to raise up the least among us as its great responsibility.
Diversity of people means diversity of culture. From highbrow to middlebrow and low. From fine to fun and fanciful. In the arts, cuisine, couture, literature, and architecture. In great public gatherings and in our own backyards. St. Louis culture is drawn from scores of world cultures, from immigrant traditions, and religious practices and observances. More than a few are home grown; some are the product of millennials, others have evolved over generations; others still are evidenced by monumental earthwork structures situated on both sides of the Mississippi, the work of great North American native cultures predating the arrival of European explorers by centuries.
We have elegant museums, acoustically perfect concert halls, a Jewel Box, and a Garden. We have outdoor concert venues at which play internationally celebrated artists. Shakespeare's great plays are performed each year in city parks. But we also have scores of writers and artists and musicians who work in quiet obscurity refining their craft.
We also have a history of holding make-believe professional wrestling matches in the ballroom of one of our grandest hotels. We adore professional and amateur sports in St. Louis of all kinds. We are devoted to the humane treatment and protection of animals, including small bears.
To fully understand St. Louis culture, though, is to realize we strive to capture beauty and truth but to do so in ways that appeal to ordinary people. Looking down our noses at snooty people is a civic sport.
This spirit may be summed up and explained through the metaphor of a two-word dairy product: Provel cheese.
Effete critics dismiss provel as a processed food, little better than gussied-up cheese whiz and unworthy of a discriminating palette.
In St. Louis culture, provel is a delicacy. It is a local culinary treasure, best experienced as the savory and satisfying topping of a thin-crusted Imo’s Pizza square -- another St. Louis original.
We hope that Lauren now knows something about St. Louis culture that has eluded learned critics: St. Louis' cultural greatness can be characterized, in part, by the simplicity of a tasty, melted cheesy treat.
Provel, in other words, like St. Louis itself, is not for everyone. Because it is for everyone.
(Photo: Ornamental birthday cake celebrating 250th Anniversary of St. Louis's founding situated outside original Imo's Pizza parlor at Shaw Boulevard and Thurman Avenue in the Shaw Neighborhood.)