The Tragic Way Monterey Jack Cheese Got Its Name

Long story short, Mr. Jack was not as pleasant as the cheese named for him.

Photo: © Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

It's clear that Americans love their cheese, from cheddar to mozzarella, with the average person consuming more than 40 pounds of it a year. Cheese has always been part of our diets; historians trace its origins back 7,000 years. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed cheese so much that they would bury it with their mummies. In Homer's Odyssey, the Cyclops made goat cheese for his guests and the Romans used it as currency (the Italians still do).

Today, though, many of the cheeses we eat date back only a few hundred years, including born-in-the-USA Monterey Jack. This is the story of how Monterey Jack cheese came to be named after ruthlessly corrupt landowner David Jack.

In 1769, Spanish Franciscan Father Junipero Serra (whose canonization recently became the topic of some controversy) founded the first California Catholic mission in present-day San Diego. A year later, the second mission was founded at Monterey Bay. The missionaries not only brought their religion to this unknown part of the world, but their foods as well. This included grapes, olives, and cattle (in fact, many of the cattle on the continent today are of Spanish descent). Cattle were a great resource because they provided not only meat and fresh milk, but also a soft, white cheese the missionaries called "queso blanco país."

After several decades under Spanish and Mexican rule, control of California changed hands. In 1848 Mexico sold California to the United States at a bargain basement price of $15 million (more than $560 million today).

With the establishment of a new state, Americans came pouring into California. Some went looking for gold, others were looking for land, and everyone arrived looking for power and fortune. In the treaty, the United States promised to uphold Mexico's rancho system, but federal government-established commissions found loopholes and ways to undermine Mexican farmers — like demanding long-forgotten paperwork and attendance at faraway hearings. Many Mexicans lost their beloved farms to people like David Jack.

When Jack first arrived in California from New York in 1848, he brought a stockpile of revolvers with him to sell to the "law-abiding and lawless alike." He settled in Monterey in 1857, where he befriended attorney Delos R. Ashley, who had been hired by the town of Monterey to legitimize its land claims to the United States Land Claims Commission. Two years later, Ashley won the case, but demanded nearly $1,000 in attorney fees that the town couldn't pay. So, an agreement was reached that Monterey would auction off the very lands that Ashley defended to help pay his fees. On February 9, 1859, the hastily called auction took place with only two bidders: Ashley and David Jack. Nearly all of Monterey's 30,000 acres of land were sold off to the two men. The price they paid: $1,000.02.

With his new acquisition of land, Jack worked to maximize his profits. He charged obscene taxes to renters and foreclosed on properties, sometimes posting notices in English to intentionally confuse Spanish-speaking farm owners. On Jack's land, there were cattle ranches, vineyards, and 14 operating dairies. According to Jack, everything they made, he owned — including the popular white cheese queso blanco país.

Jack, realizing the marketability of the cheese, began selling it throughout Monterey with his name slapped on it, "Jack's Cheese." Soon the cheese became so popular that people were eating it across California — all of them asking for "Monterey Jack's cheese."

So the next time you sprinkle some of this white, mild cheese on nachos, take a moment to think of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries who invented it. Then, curse David Jack for stealing it from them.

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