PUTNEY — In 1988, Curtis Tuff, who by that time had been cooking barbecue in Putney for more than 20 years, told a reporter from the New York Times that barbecuing was something “I just kind of figured out. Once when I was a kid I saw a man cooking big hams on the fire. That was down in Tifton, Georgia, where my grandmother used to live.’’
A year later, he told the Associated Press a version of the same story.
“I said: ‘How’s he gonna get those done?’ He said ‘You just watch.’ It took six hours, but that ham had a really good taste to it. I was 12 years old, and I never forgot it.”
He also told the Associated Press that before he came to Putney, his life had been hard.
“I never had the opportunity to know my father,” said Tuff. “My mother was killed in a car wreck when I was 15 or 16. My oldest brother, in Tampa, Fla., took care of me until I got big enough to go out on my own.”
At 23, as a migrant fruit picker in 1961, he first came to Putney with a crew for the apple harvest.
“We were fruit pickers, sometimes 100 to 150 bushels a day,” he said. “We didn’t mess around.”
He was picking fruit between Putney and Tampa, Florida, and it was a hard life.
“You don’t get what you should be paid, and you get treated bad,” he told the Associated Press. “You can’t stop ‘cause you don’t ever make enough to settle down.”
But in Putney, he was picking apples at Green Mountain Orchards, where he was welcomed with open arms.
“I got to be a hippie back then,” he said on Friday. “I was one of the many hippies here in Putney.”
It was at Green Mountain Orchards where he met Bill Darrow, who Tuff called “One of the nicest people I ever met. He treated me like one of his sons.”
Darrow invited Tuff to move to Putney and stay at the orchard.
“He said, ‘My family likes you very much. We would really like for you to stay up here and make a home at Green Mountain Orchards. It’s a nice place with plenty of room to raise a family.’”
And it wasn’t just the Darrows who treated him like family, said Tuff.
“Everyone in Putney is like family,” he said. “You start doing something and need some help and a few minutes later you’ve got 10, 15 people around you.”
Tuff began making barbecue for parties and other events, and driving around in his blue bus, selling chicken at the former Windham College, in Brattleboro and in Keene, N.H.
In 1971, he built a pit just off the highway, paid $1.50 for a license and has been cooking ever since.
On Friday, state Sen. Jeanette White and state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, both of Putney, honored him with a concurrent resolution that was approved by the Vermont Legislature.
Curtis’ All American Barbecue Pit, also known as the “9th Wonder of the World,” put Putney on the map, said Mrowicki. The barbecue map, that is.
“Curtis is a tradition,” he said. “People go out of their way to come see him and then they see the rest of the town. He has been a real treasure for a long time.”
While the food is great, said White, most people come to talk with Curtis. Many of them have been disappointed this year to learn that due to the pandemic and his own health conditions, Tuff hasn’t been able to take his spot next to a repurposed 370-gallon oil drum he stoked year after year with hardwood.
But those people, while disappointed to not visit with Tuff, light up when they realize his daughter, Sarah Tuff and her fiancée are now tending the coals.
“It’s great to see Sarah here, keeping it going,” said Mrowicki, “I’m glad, because I love barbecue. Their combo is my regular.”
“I always feel like there is something I’m not doing,” said Sarah. “He’s got a touch I’ve yet to learn. It’s so easy for him. These are big shoes to fill. I feel honored that he is trusting me.”
And she likes it when her childhood friends come by to visit.
“I like it when the kids I used to play with come and bring their families and their kids are playing with my kids,” she said.
Tuff said he was proud to have his daughter and her fiancée take over.
“She was a little bitty thing running around,” he said. “Running around at the pit. I said ‘Get your fork and start cooking.’ I said ‘That’s hot, now don’t touch it.’ I didn’t have to say that but once. She’s all growed up around the grill.”
Tuff attributes his success not just to his self-taught knowledge of barbecue, but also to his own attitude toward people.
“It pays to be nice to people. It doesn’t pay to walk around like the world owes you something. That’s the way I lived my life.”
“He has always said the customers have done him a huge favor,” said his wife, Christine Tuff, who handles the business end of the barbecue. “He has been so humble and grateful about that.”
“I did all the cooking and she did all the headaches,” said Tuff. “I had the easy job. My job was to talk to the beautiful ladies and cook the ribs and chicken.”
The continuing resolution was sponsored by White, Mrowicki, Rep. Nader Hashim and Sen. Becca Balint.
“There’s an old saying,” said Mrowicki, “to truly get to know somebody, you have to sit down and eat with them. Curtis has certainly facilitated a lot of meals here with people coming together in being in a community.”