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Proclamation for a Putney icon

Curtis Tuff surprised by lawmakers honoring his more than five decades of making world-acclaimed barbecue

PUTNEY—In the early 1960s, a young man from Georgia came to town to pick apples at Green Mountain Orchard.

Vermont gave Curtis Tuff a place where he felt loved and accepted. And Tuff gave Vermont the gift of more than five decades of great barbecue at Curtis’ All American Bar-B-Q.

On Oct. 16, two longtime Putney residents who are big fans of Curtis Tuff and his food, state Rep. Mike Mrowicki and state Sen. Jeanette White, surprised him with a proclamation from the Vermont Legislature honoring him for more than five decades of grilling chicken and pork ribs in this little town.

White read him the proclamation that was also co-sponsored by Sen. Becca Balint and Rep. Nadir Hashim.

With its blue school buses and grilling pit near Interstate 91’s Exit 4, Curtis’ All American Bar-B-Q has been a must-stop for barbeque fans since the 1970s. The roadside restaurant has been the topic of stories in newspapers, magazines, and websites from coast to coast, and Tuff achieved iconic status in Putney and beyond for his food and his generous spirit.

The resolution noted that while Tuff wasn’t tending the grill this season, due to COVID-19 concerns and other heath issues, “his family keeps the famous cooking flames going in anticipation of the great chef’s return.”

His daughter, Sarah Tuff, is taking more of an active role in running the grill pit, while his wife, Christine Tuff, continues to handle the business side, as she has for years.

Curtis was touched by the proclamation, but his legacy as a Putney icon had long since been secured.

From fruit picking to grillmaster

One of 14 children, Curtis was orphaned as a teenager. To support the family, he came to Vermont in 1961 as a migrant fruit picker who followed the harvests around the country.

But once he came to Putney and got a job picking apples for the Darrow family at Green Mountain Orchard, he decided to stick around. He became a full-time employee at the orchard.

“They took care of me and always treated me nice, like family,” he said of the Darrows, “and the people in Putney were really nice, too.”

Being a Southerner, Curtis knew about barbecue. His family cooked for church gatherings, and he learned how to do pig roasts back in Georgia. In the mid-1960s, he started doing them in Putney, first for friends and then for a bigger audience.

He started taking baskets full of his barbecue to the dorms at Windham College, then to the bars in Brattleboro. In 1968, he started Curtis Bar-B-Q in Putney and moved the business to its present site in 1972.

Curtis married Christine, a Putney native, nearly 40 years ago, and put down roots in the town that fell in love with his chicken and ribs.

“He always felt like the customers were doing him a favor,” Christine said.

“My job was easy,” Curtis said. “Talk to the beautiful ladies and cook my ribs and chicken.”

But it was not just his barbecue that kept people coming back to Putney. Curtis’s hospitality and his sunny nature also played a part.

“It pays to be nice to people,” he said. “That’s the way I live my life.”

Passing it on

This particular rainy October Friday was the first time Curtis has walked among the weathered buses and picnic tables this season.

“I missed not being around my friends,” he said. “It was always a lot of fun.”

He was coaxed to come to the pit and check on the progress of the ribs and chicken that Sarah was grilling.

Sarah has been a part of the operation since she was 2, growing up among the blue buses as she learned the art of open-pit barbecue from her father.

Still, he couldn’t resist turning some of the chicken with a long fork and seeing if it was fully cooked.

Curtis wouldn’t say definitively that his days of working the grill are over, but he said that Sarah “has done a really good job.”

While he hopes to pop in now and again next year, it’s Sarah’s show now.

“I’m glad to have a daughter who wanted to take things over,” said Curtis.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #584 (Wednesday, October 21, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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