- UNCHANGING: The smoke remains the same.
Petit Jean ham, bacon, bologna, hot dogs ... these are a staple found in grocery stores, fridges and on menus across Arkansas in all seasons, not just the holidays.
But the giving season is huge at this large family operation in Morrilton: Petit Jean ships more than 100,000 hams during the holiday months ? that's a ham for every family in Pulaski County ? as well as gift boxes of a variety of meats. Petit Jean even will deliver a full meal ? including a complete turkey dinner with cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole and pecan cobbler on the side ? to your door.
Petit Jean Meats works from a recipe that really hasn't changed that much in the past 40 years.
The company was founded in 1926, when Felix Schlosser opened a meat market with Ellis Bentley in Morrilton. Two years later, Schlosser bought out Bentley and, after rebuilding from a fire, opened the Morrilton Meat Market and Sausage Factory. Fire destroyed the plant and smokehouse in 1946, but it was rebuilt and reopened the same year. The company developed its smoked meat products through the 1940s and '50s, and for the most part the smoked bone-in and boneless hams and smoked and peppered bacons haven't changed. What has changed is the packaging and the number of hams that roll through the facility each year.
David Ruff is the son of Ed Ruff, one of the two brothers who delivered those products starting in the 1930s and who managed the company, now Morrilton Packing Co., beginning in the '50s. I spoke with him about what makes a Petit Jean ham.
“We buy fresh hams already brined to our specifications, without skin. Trimmed ‘to the blue' is what we call it, no surface fat, short shank, to make a quality ham,” says Ruff. “We inject it with a seasoning and curing solution to get the flavor in the ham, and then it sits for at least 24 hours before we put it in the smokehouse. That helps the seasoning come out.”
The ham “smokes for about 18-22 hours, then it's chilled for about 14 hours and brought down to 35 degrees. Then we put it in the vacuum package.”
Four days to package ? but it will keep a long time, up to a year in the freezer in its original packaging. How's that possible? Ruff says it's in the bag.
“A vacuum bag consists of six layers of film and each layer has a specific property ? one of them is oxygen impermeable, which eliminates any potential for freezer burn. We can take a ham, freeze it and put it up against one that's fresh any day.”
The hams are shipped frozen. Petit Jean Meats only ships on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays ? and nothing is allowed to ship more than three days. That way, no ham sits in a warehouse over the weekend.
This sort of shipping schedule means that Petit Jean Meats aren't sent to other countries. “We ship to the United States and Puerto Rico, but we do not export. We ship to Alaska and Hawaii. It may cost more to get it there, but it's worth it,” says Ruff.
Petit Jean Meats is a no-filler production: Bologna and hot dogs are made from just beef and pork. “We do inject our hams with a solution,” Ruff says, “but if we weigh that ham at 15 pounds when we get it, it'll weigh 15 pounds or less when it's packaged. That's how we differentiate our hams from water added hams.” Ruff is proud of that fact. “You can buy a ham a whole lot cheaper than our ham, but once you squeeze the water out of it and cut off the fat, per pound you'll pay about the same.”
Petit Jean Meats remains a family operation. Ruff's grandmother, Mary Ruff, was the founder's cousin. Generations of families have worked at the plant, and it's become an integral part of the community.
Mail-order hams (at www.petitjeanmeats.com) range from $73 for a 12 to 14 pound bone-in to $90 for two halves bone-in; peppered hams are a dollar more. Boneless hams range from $63 to $90. Gift boxes combine bacon, sausage, boneless peppered beef and turkey. www.petitjeanmeats.com