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'He Was Vermont's Ambassador': Remembering Curtis Tuff, Of Putney BBQ Fame

A man in a hat and mask
Kristopher Radder
Brattleboro Reformer
Curtis Tuff, a Vermont icon, was honored by state lawmakers this fall after running his Putney barbecue for more than five decades. He died Tuesday night. He was 83.

Curtis Tuff, who ran Curtis’ BBQ in Putney for more than 50 years, has died.

Tuff was an icon in southern Vermont, standing over his open-pit smoker and talking with anyone who was waiting for their food to be served.

It’s is the kind of place where if you visit it once, you never forget it. There’s the food – big meaty pork ribs, and chicken slow-cooked over hardwood (which Tuff himself used to cut) slathered with his secret recipe barbecue sauce.

And the setting is like no other. It’s all outside, and the food comes out of an old, funky school bus, painted baby-blue. You would have likely had to walk around one of Tuff’s pot-bellied pigs on your way to pick up an order.

More from VPR: Putney BBQ King a local institution

But above all, it was the man, Curtis Tuff, a gentle and soft-spoken pit-master, part-James Beard and part-wise man.

This is what he said during a recent interview about why he thinks his customers would return year after year:

“When you’re nice and kind ... things work out for you. But if you're walking around in the world with your head stuck up in the air like the world owes you something, it ain’t gonna happen, it won’t happen now, no, you know. Peoples takes you as you are.”

"When you're nice and kind ... things work out for you. But if you walk around in the world with your head stuck up in the air like the world owes you something, it ain't gonna happen, it won't happen now, no, you know. Peoples takes you, as you are." — Curtis Tuff

Tuff was born in Georgia. He grew up doing farm labor, and in the early 1960s, his boss told him there was good work up in Vermont picking apples. He ended up in Putney, at Green Mountain Orchards. It was at a time when the counterculture was exploding in Vermont.

In the interview he did last year, he said he bonded with the young, white radicals, who had settled in Windham County.

“I was the only Black person here in Putney,” Tuff said. “And a lot of the guys in Putney, back then, was giving the hippies a hard time. You know, the hippies, they be walking down the street, going to the store, long hair, you know what I mean? You know, then, started beating up on them for no reason at all. It was kind of hard for me to see things like that. Why is it happening, 'cause they didn’t do anything.”

And the hippies took to Tuff as well. He learned how to barbecue from his grandfather, and he started doing pig roasts, out on old hippie farms in the area.

In 1968, Tuff opened up Curtis’ All-American Bar-B-Q on a slice of land he bought on the south end of town. The menu was simple: ribs and chicken, served with fresh side dishes, many made with locally grown vegetables.

A man roasts meat
Credit Kristopher Radder / Brattleboro Reformer
Brattleboro Reformer
Curtis' BBQ opened in Putney in 1968 and has been an institution ever since.

Interstate 91 had just opened in Vermont, and Curtis’ picnic tables were set up right near the exit ramp. For 52 years, Curtis’ All-American Bar-B-Q was a destination stop for travelers, heading up and down the highway.

Former Gov. Peter Shumlin, who’s from Putney, says Tuff was the perfect person to welcome tourists into the state from behind his barbecue pit.

“I always told Curtis he was the Vermont welcome center before we built the one down in Guilford,” Shumlin said. “He was Vermont’s ambassador; the first person you met when you came up the highway from the Deep South.”

Chris Podles lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he’s been stopping at Curtis’ on his way through Vermont for more than 20 years. Podles and a few buddies ride their motorcycles up to Putney every year, mainly to pay a visit to Curtis.

“That’s kind of an annual pilgrimage in the spring and the fall to go up there and visit with Curtis, 'cause he was so unique,” Podles said. “And he had the most unique barbecue, unlike anything around here in New England. So my friends and I would ride up. We were regulars there.”

Curtis Tuff died in his sleep Tuesday night at his home in Putney. He was 83.

Audio for this story was provided by Wendy O'Connell of Brattleboro Community TV.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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