Were it not for the billowing smoke and hunger-inducing aromas wafting though the air, it would be easy to miss the two blue school buses that house "The 9th Wonder of the World." Curtis' Bar·B·Q, just up the hill from exit 4 on Interstate 91 in Vermont, is in its 41st season of serving southern-style barbecue in the quaint village of Putney. Over the years, this seasonal, unassuming stand has garnered a loyal following not just locally, but well beyond these verdant hills as well.
What brings people back season after season? The answer begins with the man behind the grill. Curtis Tuff, a native of Macomb, Georgia, was a migrant farm worker who followed harvests from Florida to New England. In 1961, Curtis' itinerancy came to an end, however, when he found steady work picking apples for the Darrow family at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney. To augment his income, Tuff used his know-how to prepare pig roasts for special events at area schools. Using temporary cooking pits he fashioned from cement blocks, as well as a sauce based on his grandfather's recipe, Curtis gradually introduced Vermonters to real southern barbecue. It wasn't long before word-of-mouth generated consistent demand for his cooking.
The aforementioned cement blocks proved unwieldy and short-lived, however. That's where the school buses entered the scene. Employing a little Yankee ingenuity, the Southerner outfitted the vehicles with a fire pit crafted from a 275-gallon oil drum, halved lengthwise, and vented through the roof with stove pipes and a fan.
By 1968, Curtis' Bar·B·Q was a going concern. With his newfound grilling mobility, Tuff took his barbecue act on the road to nearby locales including a number of school campuses. His popularity among lucubratory students earned him the unofficial title of "The 9th Wonder of the World," a slogan he uses to this day.
The limited menu of pork ribs and chicken hasn't changed much over the years. Nevertheless, it was enough to draw the attention of The New York Times, whose favorable, 1988 article helped Tuff find permanent parking spots for his blue school buses. The newer bus serves as the main stand, with a small counter and two of its windows flipped up to accommodate customer orders and pickups. To the right, under a corrugated metal roof, the affable, 72-year-old Curtis Tuff can be seen grilling meats amid clouds of smoke. He still uses his halved oil drums, now mounted atop an old hay wagon.
Service seems to be instantaneous. I scarcely had time to put away my change when my order was ready. Seating is available at picnic tables that flank the unpaved parking lot. A new open-sided picnic shed seems somehow out of place. Though it is the only structure on the premises that does not appear ramshackle (or perhaps because of that), the older seating area with umbrellas—nearer the road—tends to be more popular.
Cooking time is roughly 80 minutes for a slab of ribs; 90 minutes for a three-pound chicken. Curtis refuses to use charcoal, opting, instead, for hardwoods—which include, of course, maple. The meat is done to perfection, its succulence imbued with a rich, sweet, smoky flavor. Though the barbecue sauce delivers the right amount of heat, its tang verges on being overly vinegary. The flavor reminds me somewhat of Tabasco®. There's a practical reason for the acidity, however. Because the recipe predates the advent of refrigeration, vinegar was added as a preservative.
Although barbecue may not be the first thing that comes to mind when visiting the Green Mountain State, Curtis' quality and convenience make this a perfect stop for a quick bite while leaf-peeping. The experience is quite satisfying. While wiping his mouth and preparing to leave, a person at the next table declared, "Another great meal!"
7 Putney Landing Road (I-91, exit 4)
Putney, VT 05346 (map)
Open April through October, 10:00 A.M till dusk. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.