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Tasty lesson from the Catholic origins of a popular cheese

Bacon grilled cheese sandwich

Jen duMoulin | Shutterstock

Cerith Gardiner - published on 07/13/23

Next time you bite into a sandwich made with Monterey Jack cheese, you might want to remember the Franciscan friars and how they came to invent it.

Cheese is so popular that we tend to take its existence for granted. But when you’re preparing a sandwich or snack with a slice of that good old American favorite, Monterey Jack, you might want to consider that its creation came after the hard work of some very careful Franciscan friars.

Cheese on a mission

According to U Catholic, the famed cheese owes its origins to the missions established in California between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Among them were the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, founded by St. Junipero Serra in Monterey Bay in 1770.

Those missions needed to be self-sufficient. This meant they grew their own fruit and vegetables, and also brought cattle over from Europe. With all the food they produced they were able to not only fend for themselves, but also provide sustenance to those they were serving in their local area.

How did this lead to the creation of today’s popular cheese?

Well, not wanting to waste the surplus supply of milk that their livestock produced, the missionaries set about making queso blanco pais, otherwise known as “country peasant cheese.” The cheese was creamy, but at the same time semi-firm.

“Jack’s” cheese

In 1859, decades after its initial creation and following the sale of California to the United States, a rather the shady entrepreneur named David Jack opened a farm where he focused on dairy products. “Working with” (or taking advantage of) Spanish and Portuguese dairymen, David Jack used their know-how to produce the queso blanco pais and named it after himself, “Jack’s cheese.”

The popularity of this cheese skyrocketed over the ensuing decades. Today’s pasteurized Monterey Jack cheese is a firm favorite among many Americans, and accounts for a substantial 10% of the cheese production in California. Its high fat and moisture content make it perfect from everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to quesadillas.

While today it’s considered an original homegrown delight, it’s interesting to note that its origins lie in the friars’ desire to feed a small population while also avoiding any wastage — a lesson we could all learn from today.

Interestingly, friars and monks continue to use their production skills today to help fund their monasteries or other projects. From brewing their own beer to making honey, there seems no end to the talents of these religious and culinary pioneers.

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