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Cheese Corner: Monterey Jack

Kelly McCoy for Progressive Dairy Published on 15 September 2021
Monterey Jack Cheese

Monterey Jack, creamy and mild, is rarely a star, but it makes a wonderful supporting player. It’s often mixed with something else with great results. It supplies the “jack” in cheddar jack, Colby jack and pepper jack.

You often find it in a nacho cheese blend and other Southwestern or Mexican food. (It goes very well with chorizo.)

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Hailed as a true “American” cheese by virtue of its birthplace, it was first made by Franciscan monks in the Monterey region of California in the early 1800s. They modeled it after the cheese from back home and called it “queso blanco pais” or “white country cheese.”

That supplies the “Monterey.” You may wonder, though: Why “Jack”? That is a longer tale.

The “Jack” in question, according to the story, is one David Jacks (1822-1909). Jacks, who was originally from Scotland, came West to Monterey from New York in 1850. By 1852, he was quietly buying up land. California, you see, had been handed over to the U.S. by Mexico in 1848, along with other Southwest territory, ending the Mexican-American War. This created some confusion, as Mexican landowners held titles to large portions of what was now U.S. soil – though the U.S. might not recognize it.

Long story short, the pueblo of Monterey sued in 1853 … and won, but couldn’t pay the lawyer. The pueblo lands were sold at auction to pay the lawyer’s fee. The lawyer and a friend of his (our Mr. Jacks) bid on the whole pueblo tract and bought it – for $1,002.50. About six months later, the lawyer sold his portion to our Mr. Jacks, who now owned it as well as most everything else in Monterey County.

Thus far is pretty well documented. The cheese connection is a touch murkier. The story goes on: Our Mr. Jacks soon was claiming the goods from farmers on his newly acquired land as his own – including some “white country cheese” from the local monks. The cheese was soon marketed as “Jacks’ cheese,” soon spreading out from Monterey and becoming “Monterey Jacks’ cheese” and then, of course, just “Monterey Jack.” So it has been ever since.

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So next time you use a nacho cheese blend, or eat pepper jack, you might spare a thought for the Franciscan monks who created Monterey Jack – and got little to nothing for it. end mark

Getty Images.

Monterey Jack joins baby Swiss and Colby as true “American” cheeses.

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