Whether melted in a quesadilla or a grilled cheese sandwich, or sliced on a charcuterie board next to one of its stinkier cousins, Monterey Jack is a staple cheese. Its flavor is similar to cheddar, but it contains a bit more moisture. Despite its popularity, there remains some mystery around Monterey Jack’s true origins. Though it may have the name “Monterey,” the town of Pacifica lays claim to the iconic cheese.
The recipe for what we now call Monterey Jack is believed — by some — to have originated in California’s missions in the 1700s. But the soft, mild cheese got its name — at least the “Jack” part — much later from a wealthy Monterey landowner named David Jack. Jack popularized and marketed the cheese. But how he got his hands on the recipe is wrapped up in local pride — and lore.
David Jack and Monterey
David Jack was born in Scotland in 1822 and had emigrated to America by the time he reached adulthood. After a stop on the East Coast, where he acquired a shipment of guns, Jack arrived in California in 1849 in the midst of the Gold Rush. Firearms were a hot commodity in those days, and Jack sold the guns for a huge profit. He took that money and went prospecting, but never found gold.
Jack began calling himself David Jacks at this point, and moved to the small town of Monterey, where he began to acquire land. Kathleen Manning from the Pacifica Historical Society says much of that acquisition was through what she called “shady land deals.”
In 1851, at the end of the Mexican-American war, as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the land around California was divided up and sold. The pueblo of Monterey, as it was known then, hired an attorney named Dalos Rodeyn to handle some land deals.
But the town had no money to pay him and had to sell land to pay that debt. That attorney teamed up with Jacks to buy the entire town of Monterey and much of the adjacent land at a very low rate. Jacks became the de facto landlord of the region, and began lending money against people’s land, and then foreclosing and taking ownership of even more land in the region.
“He was able to take advantage of a lot of people. He has a very bad reputation,” said Manning.
The town of Monterey tried a few times to buy itself back from Jacks, even sending a case to the US Supreme Court in 1906, but Jacks won.