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Monterey Jack cheese is soft and mild. It might not be your first choice for a fancy cheese plate, but it's nice in a quesadilla or grilled cheese.  iStock/Getty Images Plus
Monterey Jack cheese is soft and mild. It might not be your first choice for a fancy cheese plate, but it's nice in a quesadilla or grilled cheese.  (iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Move Over Monterey? Pacifica Lays Claim to Iconic Jack Cheese

Move Over Monterey? Pacifica Lays Claim to Iconic Jack Cheese

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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.

David Jack (I.W. Taber/Public domain)

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 then known, 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 U.S. Supreme Court in 1906, but Jacks won.

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Besides land, Jacks had another business interest: dairy.

There were hundreds of dairies making milk and various types of cheese around Monterey at the time, and several were on Jacks’ land. One of those dairies was making a mild, soft, white cheese — sound familiar? Jacks would market and sell that cheese with his name on it, and the official Jack cheese was born.

The original recipe for the cheese Jacks would sell as his own could have come from any number of places — but where?

The Pacifica connection

According to a 1938 cookbook, “Eating Around San Francisco,” the recipe for what we now know as Jack cheese originated on Mori Point in Pacifica. The author visited Mori Point and wrote:

“I was interested to discover that it was Stephano Mori, who first made what we today call Monterey cheese. Having been born and brought up in Italy, Stephano and his wife learned there how to make cheese. They made it on their Mori Point property. The cheese was very good.

“An Italian named Baldocchi was a friend of the family. He learned how to make the cheese and went to Monterey and manufactured it on a commercial scale. As he was on the Jack ranch. The cheese is now known as Jack or Monterey cheese.”

If this book is to be believed, Baldocchi took the recipe from the Moris, moved to Monterey and mass-produced it with David Jacks.

 

Other theories

Not everyone is sold on Jack cheese being from Pacifica. In fact, there are a number of claims to the lineage of Monterey Jack. Some point to Domingo Pedrazzi of Carmel Valley, who made a cheese called “jack cheese.” It required pressure to remove moisture, which he accomplished with a “jack press.”

It’s also been argued that a local woman who sold homemade queso del país — like the cheese made at California’s historic missions — could be the person Jacks took the recipe from. What we do know for sure is Jacks didn’t invent the recipe – but he did go on to make that cheese, and himself, very famous.

Pacifica Jack cheese

In Pacifica, the historical society is making the most of their lesser-known connection to this California cheese by producing their own variety. Pacifica Jack Cheese is sold exclusively at the Pacifica Coastside Museum in Pacifica, and Manning says they’ve sold nearly 3 tons so far.

If you begin to ask where Monterey Jack cheese originated, you’ll get a different answer depending on whom you ask. But Kathleen Manning says, “If you don’t know Pacifica, you don’t know Jack.”

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