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.
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.”
Although we don’t claim our cheese has preventative powers, we do claim it will brighten your meals to add a little cheese! It can be ordered by calling Kathleen @ 415 509 6685 or emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. It is still only $8 a pound and will help support our Museum during these trying times. We have sold 4 tons so far!
BY VANITHA SANKARAN
Photos by Jamie Soja, Pacifica Magazine
Any cheese lover — especially one who enjoys a great grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup — is surely familiar with the creamy cheese known as Monterey Jack. But did you know how Pacifica fits into the story of this beloved staple?
Folklore tells us that Jack cheese descends from a semi-soft style of Italian farmers’ cheese that was once a staple of Caesar’s vast armies. Reportedly, a version of this cheese made its way from Rome to Mallorca, Spain, and then on to Mexico via 18th century Franciscan monks. From here, however, the story gets a little muddy.
One version tells of a Spanish woman named Dona Joana Cota de Boronda who made bricks of cheese that she sold door to door in Monterey. According to the tale, her property fell into the hands of notorious Scot David Jacks, who made his fortune as a usurer. Another version speaks of Jacks paying overdue taxes on a dairy farm, confiscating it and then selling the cheese as way to use up the farm’s milk surpluses. However, Jacks came by his cheese, his contribution in making Monterey Jack a well-known American cheese is undisputed.
More recently, however, Pacifican Kathleen Manning discovered a new twist to the mystery: it turns out that the recipe for Jack cheese actually might not have passed through Mexico at all, but came from Italy straight to Pacifica, and through a family known well to locals.
Manning is an antiquarian who sells antique books and prints and is the president emerita of the Pacifica Historical Society. A collector of vintage cookbooks, Manning delights in reading about social history through food and recipes. She recalls coming across a 1938 edition of the book “Eating Around San Francisco,” by Ruth Thompson and Chef Louis Hanges, and thinking, “I wonder if there’s anything there on Pacifica? And there was, on Mori, and Mori’s Inn at the Point, which burned down in the ’60s.”
The passage she refers to is a description of Ray and Marie Mori’s farmhouse near Rockaway Beach, originally purchased by Stefano Mori in 1888 when he arrived from Italy. Marie took the authors of the book on a tour of their restored home and hotel accommodations. As they describe it, the kitchen carried “the odors of cooking sauces, soups, and meats,” while the storeroom seemed “a veritable Italian grocery store, with cheeses, salami hung from the ceiling, shelves of necessary sauces and foods that go into the making of Mori meals.”
It turns out that Stefano Mori made the Italian farmers cheese on the property himself. Says Manning, “Their cheese recipe was stolen by an employee,” apparently by a family friend named Baldacchi. “They had a falling out, and he went down to Monterey, to the Jacks Ranch. He had the recipe and they started producing the cheese commercially and it’s called Monterey Jack.” In effect, Manning says, “they’ve stolen our recipe, right from Pacifica.” She found corroborating evidence of Jacks’ theft in the book “Roadside History of California” by Ruth Pittman.
Manning decided to take the recipe back to its local origins. Using her vast skills and resources in finding rare books, Manning was able to track down the recipe Stefano Mori used to make his cheese, which the Pacifica Historical Society resurrected under the name Pacifica Jack Cheese.“It’s not a complicated recipe,” she says, and explains how they found a cheesemaker to produce the organic cheese as a novelty. “But it took off like crazy.”
In fact, during the tours of Sam’s Castle, also put on by PHS, an actress comes out in the ghostly guise of Mrs. Mori to explain the history of the cheese. “It really is very tasty,” Manning says, estimating they’ve sold roughly a ton of Pacifica Jack now, with all proceeds going to PHS for their restoration projects.
Earlier this year, the PHS held its second annual cheese contest, netting 22 contestants, both local and from the greater Bay area. They all entered Pacifica Jack-based foods in four categories: hors d’oeuvres, desserts, cheese trays and creative use. The submissions were stunning displays of edible art with names such as “Mega Jack,” “Spicy Jack,” “Jack Crack” and “Bringing Sexy Jack.” The style goes along well with the cheese memorabilia PHS sells with sly slogans such as “If You Don’t Know Pacifica, You Don’t Know Jack!” and “Make Pacifica Great Again. Buy Pacifica Jack Cheese.”
Prizes included tickets to the ragtime musician Bob Milne concert, a gift certificate to the PHS store, and a local cookbook. The Spindrift Players entertained with songs from their upcoming production of “Cabaret,” and participants got the chance to take pictures with PHS’ cardboard cow.
The society is hoping to hold a grilled cheese contest later this year and eventually also plans to publish a cookbook with Pacifica Jack cheese recipes.
The cheese is sold both at the PHS-run Pacifica Coastside Museum and at Manning’s Books and Prints Old and Rare at the Crespi Center, as well as at Fog Fest and during the castle tours. Although it’s hard for PHS to keep the cheese in stock due to its popularity, the PHS has no plans to sell the cheese elsewhere.
But as Manning puts it, “You never know what the future holds.” Given how popular the cheese is, the future for this historical cheese seems bright.
Pacifica Jack Cheese can be tasted at Pacifica Coastside Museum. For more information, please visit http://pacificahistory.org.
For more about Pacifica Jack Cheese, check out these articles:
Visit Pacifica: Keep Pacifica Grate – Visit Pacifica
The Pacifica Historical Society
The Society preserves, enjoys and educates about Pacifica’s past. In addition to historical research, we host regular events about local history, and run the Pacifica Coastside Museum. We hope you will visit us!
Pacifica has a fascinating history. It was the site of an Ohlone village over a thousand years ago. It was the site where Europeans first saw the San Francisco Bay. It has been part of Spain, Mexico and the United States. During Prohibition, Pacifica was the home of rolicking speakeasies. Pacifica’s incredible view of the Pacific Ocean brought military lookouts missle silos during the Cold War. Today Pacifica attracts visitors from around the world, drawn to our natural beauty, amazing hiking trails, legendary surfing, a castle, and the world’s most beautiful Taco Bell (seriously!).
Current exhibits include a working model of the Ocean Shore Railroad, the Portola Expedition, Pacifica in WWII, the Ohlone People, and more!
MUSEUM OPEN TO VISITORS DURING THE WEEK
Please note that beginning in July, the Coastside Museum will only be open on Thursdays and Saturdays, from 1 pm to 4 pm. Docents will be on hand to answer questions and to interpret the exhibits.