Curtis Jr. is sleeping. Tendrils of maple and oak smoke brush his prone body as he lies beside the tiny Putney smokehouse where his dad started cooking up his chicken and ribs 41 years ago. This is how he spends his days from April to October. He is unbothered by the crowds of bikers arriving from Massachusetts, though when addressed by name, he lets out a snort, even in his sleep.
The white-and-black-striped 5-year-old potbelly pig “is a great house pet,” says Curtis Tuff, 72, in a Georgia accent as heavy as his food. The sign beside the pen where Curtis Jr. — better known as CJ — whiles away the day credits him as Tuff’s “supervisor.” But until Tuff breaks out the carrots, he mostly sleeps on the job.
Tuff came to Vermont in 1961. A native of Macomb, Ga., he says, “I used to follow the season and pick fruit all over the country.” But after he got a job apple picking for the Darrow family at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, the migrant worker migrated no more.
Four years later, Tuff began preparing pig roasts over a pit. He says he learned the practice watching his family cook for church gatherings. “They’d take some pieces of wood and cement blocks and heavy-duty wire” and, voilà — a grill pit.
Tuff’s pork and ribs first traveled beyond the farm when he began vending the meat at local bars. He even charmed restaurants into letting him stop in to peddle his wares to diners. In 1968, the original Curtis’ BBQ (it has since moved to a larger lot just down the road) opened its doors to the public.
So to speak — because Curtis’ is an entirely fresh-air operation. In the early days, “we used to cook right in there,” says Tuff’s wife of 25 years and Putney native Christine, motioning to a tiny smokehouse right out of Song of the South. Today, a small compound of trailers and blue-painted school buses crowds the property along with the old smoke shack, now more cupboard than kitchen. But the cooking happens outside. Crowds gather to gawk as Tuff prepares his manna on three small grates over the flaming pit, which sends fragrant smoke across the property and onto the highway. Barbecue fans order and pay cash at the newer of the blue buses, then head to either side to dig in at picnic tables or in their cars.
Christine joined the business nearly 30 years ago as an extra set of hands. Now she’s the full-time business manager. Besides their 25-year-old daughter Sarah (see sidebar), the two share six children from previous marriages.
During her interview, smoke seems to follow Christine. No matter where she pauses on the property, curtains of the stuff cover her face. “This is nothing,” she says. “We used to cook right in the shack, then the bus. It was just the two of us taking all the seats out. It seemed like it took forever.”
Curtis’ menu has changed little in more than 40 years. Protein choices are chicken and ribs: Tuff says he goes through 30 racks and 60 or 70 birds a day. Generally smoked over maple and oak that Curtis splits himself, the meats have an airy taste quite different from that of barbeque prepared in an enclosed smoker, and a noticeably blackened exterior. They’re far from burnt, though: The pliant chicken skin keeps the stunningly white meat inside moist. The massive ribs have a thin crust of charred meat around a slippery-soft center that detaches from the bone at first bite.
Sweet corn comes specially from Georgia, like Curtis and the pork. It’s worth it. Tuff steams it still in the husk and serves it up ready to peel and butter with pats of Cabot. Christine invented another of the specialties at Curtis’ — the pork-stuffed potato. Since the restaurant doesn’t offer pulled-pork or chicken sandwiches, any meat that’s left over from the on-the-bone chicken and ribs ends up stuffing a spud. The tender taters themselves are cooked in foil right on the pit.
After we order and pay at the window of the big blue bus, food follows in less than a minute — faster than McDonald’s. It takes Tuff about an hour and a half to smoke up a slab of ribs or a chicken, so meats and sides such as savory baked beans hit the steamer trays as soon as they’re cooked. The beans, sweet yams and veggies of the day get grilled too, in pots placed on the edges of the pit.
Besides the smoke, what makes Curtis’ ’cue so great? The hot-and-sour sauce, which Tuff says is a recipe concocted by his grandfather “way back a long time ago at the very start of the 20th century.” This was before the age of refrigeration, and Granddad “had to come up with a barbecue sauce that wouldn’t spoil,” says Tuff. Vinegar worked as a preservative while adding a distinctive tang.
The old recipe got some 21st-century exposure last year when the editors at Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine voted it the best “Hot and Spicy” sauce in the country. Tuff notes that for BBQ fans weaned on sugary Sweet Baby Ray’s and the like, his tart sauce can be a revelation, saying, “There’s nothin’ sweet in it but ketchup.” Not to say that he shuns sweet meat accompaniments in other forms. Tuff also bottles a line of sodas in flavors like a sweet and complex root beer, birch beer and bubble-gummy “vanilla cream.”
All that heavy food would take its toll on most mere mortals, but the Tuffs somehow remain slim. Curtis, in his trademark checked shirt, hat and hoop earring, has the presence of a much younger man as he ably flips his sizable slabs of meat.
Keeping the restaurant’s porcine mascot lean is a different matter. The Tuffs’ first pig, Isabelle, was a surprise birthday present to Curtis from Christine. “She came from my aunt,” Christine explains. “They let her get so heavy they were afraid she was going to go through the floor of their trailer.” Curtis grows misty eyed relating the eventual end of his beloved porker: “I had her for 12 years; then she had a heart attack and left me.”
For Tuff’s next birthday, his daughter Laurel located a farm in Michigan that shipped baby CJ via air in a cat carrier. Though CJ eats only two cups of mini-pig chow a day, Christine estimates that he is now “almost 100 pounds overweight.”
Though she’s 10 years Curtis’ junior at 62, Christine says, “Now it’s time to retire.” But Curtis, who’s had two knee replacements performed in the off season, says, “Not anytime soon,” when asked about quitting.
“Getting him to slow down isn’t easy,” says Christine. “When he stops, I get to stop.” Her husband has consented to allow daughter Sarah’s fiancé, Chris Parker, to manage his booming catering business. Parker says that he has brought his future in-laws’ trademark barbecue as far north as Burke and has made several trips to Burlington for parties and weddings.
According to Parker, Tuff created Putney’s tourist industry. “There’s just him and Basketville, and he was there first,” he says. Christine says most of Curtis’ customers are tourists who return year after year.
Paul Adasiewicz, who arrives on the other kind of hog with two pals, says he makes the trip from Springfield, Mass., to Curtis’ several times a summer. Christine says it’s not out of the ordinary for folks to drive up from New York or Connecticut for a trip focused on a rack of ribs.
Other than fantastic food, what keeps customers coming after all these years? Parker credits his soon-to-be father-in-law. “There are a lot of great restaurant owners with crummy food and vice versa. Curtis is a rare example of greatness in both,” he says.
Christine agrees, adding that her husband “says, ‘thank you’ to every person who leaves.” Though Curtis himself thinks the draw is seeing food cooked outside on the pit, even he admits, “The main thing about doing the bidness is being nice to people. I get a chance to talk to the kids and learn a little about everyone who eats my food.”
In 41 years, he’s made a lot of new acquaintances — and made sure they went on their way with full stomachs and a smoky taste of the South.
“My mom says I used to suck on a rib bone as a teether,” says Sarah Tuff, 25. She sits at a picnic table at Curtis’ All-American Restaurant, which she and her fiancé, Chris Parker, 26, own together. Though she claims, “It wasn’t our goal to expand,” two years ago the couple did just that, abandoning their Chester roadside stand for the two-story building 40 minutes north of the Putney stand, owned by Curtis’ sauce manufacturer.
Tuff, a recent John Jay College grad whose intense dark eyes glimmer when she makes a point, says that despite spending summers at her father’s shack, she didn’t grow up a barbecue apprentice. Her father allowed her to “flip a rack of ribs, just to humor me,” but her culinary training ended there. “My mom says customers would come and ask for me. I made a lot of friends, and they still come in. Some of them have kids now, too,” says the mother of 3-year-old Addison.
Tuff started in the family business selling T-shirts, for which her mom paid her a dollar a day for every year of her age. When Tuff and Parker became high school sweethearts, Curtis Tuff set Parker to splitting wood. “I think that was his test, to see if I was worthy,” says Parker with a shrug.
Soon after, Curtis allowed Parker to work the grill, a step that led to his taking over the catering part of the franchise. Once they were running their own business, Tuff began getting her hands dirty cooking, too. Today, she says they split cooking duties evenly.
Because Tuff’s restaurant dishes out her dad’s famous ribs and chicken year round, as well as pulled pork, brisket and snacks such as nachos and quesadillas, an open pit doesn’t quite make sense. To cook even in the snow, the pair uses a charcoal smoker, which also makes the trip to catering gigs across Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
A regular Wednesday Open Mic night brings local crowds to the family restaurant, which has chalkboard walls kids can scribble on. Since Addison and his parents live above the restaurant, Tuff says Open Mic “gives us something to do without leaving the house.” Another popular attraction that gets locals coming back is the weekend buffet. Every Saturday and Sunday evening, a table groans under all-you-can-eat ribs, chicken, maple-kissed cornbread, slightly sweet beans and ever-changing sides, including potato salad, cole slaw, mac and cheese, and zesty Southwest corn. All for $13.99.
Tuff says her business focus is on “bookkeeping and the managerial aspects,” a skill set she’s been using in her quest to make her dad’s delectable sauce a household name. Beyond that, she and Parker agree modestly that “our main focus is getting established here and helping my parents and just making our way in life as a young couple.”
That doesn’t stop Tuff from staying one step ahead, musing, “I think it would be really fun to have a place in Burlington.”
7 Putney Landing Road, Putney, 387-5474. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to dusk.
908 VT Route 103 South, Chester 875-6999. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to closing.