Of the few cheeses that actually originated in the United States, Monterey Jack cheese is the most controversial. A semi-soft white cheese (except for some aged varieties), similar to cheddar, and often studded with jalapenos or pimientos, it is a favorite on nachos and other Tex-Mex or Mexican foods in the U.S. How it originated, however, is often disputed, and even the origin of its name is debated.
One thing that is certain is that the Monterey part of the name comes from Jack cheese having originated in the Monterey Bay area of California. An early landowner in the area named David Jacks is the first person who mass-marketed the cheese. He owned 14 dairies, and he sold the cheese as Jack’s cheese. People, however, began asking for “Monterey Jack cheese” and so the name was changed.
However, it is hotly disputed that David Jacks invented the cheese. Many say that Monterey Jack cheese was derived from semi-soft Spanish cheeses called queso de pais or queso blanco that were brought to the area by Franciscan monks, via Mexico, in the 1700s. There are records that suggest the cheese was made in Monterey at least as early as 1859. This is earlier than David Jacks began selling it. Two different people are credited for having first adopted the queso del pais recipe and with selling the cheese on a commercial basis.
One is Dona Juana Cota de Boronda, who is said to have made a version of queso de pais at her Boronda adobe dairy and sold it locally by its traditional name.
The other is Domingo Pedrazzi, who used a housejack to apply pressure to a board placed atop the cheese, so that it became known as Jack cheese, or Pedrazzi’s Jack Cheese.
The Most Hated Man in Monterey – Inventor of Jack Cheese?
David Jacks was considered by locals to be an early “land shark,” and the historical records seem to show him as just that. He used shady foreclosure practices to run people off their land, and managed early on to scoop up a bunch of land from the city of Monterey, in a case that became known as “the rape of Monterey.” He became the largest landowner in the area, and at one point owned $100,000 acres. It is probably not a wonder that many do not wish to credit him with the invention of Monterey’s namesake cheese. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his book Across the Plains even mentioned him, saying that all the lands in Monterey were owned by a single man “who is heated with a great hatred.” Jacks life was threatened by more than one organization and he had to travel with bodyguards.
It is not questioned that David Jacks, who had changed his name from “Jack,” was the first person to sell the cheese on a wide-scale commercial basis, in San Franciso and beyond. What is debated is whether he adopted the recipe (some would say stole it) from the queso blanco cheeses that were already being sold in the area, and whether the name Jack Cheese was already associated with it before he began calling it Jack’s Cheese.
Although Jacks had the excess milk from his 14 dairies to make and sell more cheese than anyone in the area, other varieties were sold under different names. For example, cheese made in Sonoma County was called Sonoma Jack cheese. The FDA made the name Monterey Jack official in 1955, to include all the varieties on the market.