American cheese is an iconic fixture in the culinary cultural history of the United Sates: so popular, the average person eats over fifteen pounds a year. But what most people think of as “American Cheese” i.e. neon orange pre-packaged, processed slices is not the original American Cheese. The real and original American cheese was Monterey Jack and was created by Franciscan friars.
Between 1769 and 1823, Franciscan missionaries, most notably Saint Junipero Serra, established and operated 21 missions in California to minister to and serve the Native Americans.
One of these is San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, founded by Serra in Monterey Bay in 1770. The first objective after the construction of a mission to become self sufficient in order to support themselves and the local population they served. The friars introduced fruits, vegetables, but most importantly livestock from Europe.
When the friars found themselves with a surplus of milk, they started making queso blanco pais, “country peasant cheese,” renowned as a semi-firm, creamy delicacy that became a staple of the Spanish-speaking settlers.
Today that cheese is more commonly known as Monterey Jack, considered the original “American” cheese for its native United States origin from the early days of the country by Franciscan friars.
When California was accepted into the Union, business flourished in the new state. In 1859, Entrepreneur David Jack acquired land near the Salinas River and opened a farm. One of his business interest’s was dairy. Partnering with Spanish and Portuguese dairymen he used his land to produce queso blanco pais and called it “Jack’s Cheese”.
Jack’s Cheese became very popular on the West coast, and people started asking for it by name – “Monterey Jack” became synonymous with the white, creamy cheese. Today Monterey Jack, the true original “American cheese,” accounts for over ten percent of California’s total cheese production – and we have Franciscan friars to thank for it.