Just up the road is the 9th Wonder of the World.
For 40 years, Curtis Tuff has been selling barbecued ribs out of a blue school bus – two school buses now – in a clearing in the woods just off freeway exit 4 in Vermont.
“Curtis’ All American Barbecue – The 9th Wonder of the World” says his great old hand-painted sign, which features a Constellation airplane flying around Planet Earth, and an arrow pointing to “Putney, Vermont.”
The New York Times called it one of the best barbecue joints in the country way back in 1988, and not much has changed, except half a chicken costs $7, up from $3.75, and Curtis has a Web site now, where you can order bottles of his barbecue sauce (www.curtisbbqvt.com). Get the spicy.
“I don’t use charcoal, period,” Curtis says. “It’s not good for you. All that gas goes in the meat, and that’s what you end up tasting.”
The New York Times called him Mr. Tuff; everybody calls him Curtis. Curtis cooks over hardwood, in a barbecue pit he made by cutting a 275-gallon oil drum in half lengthwise.
As I watch, enveloped in fragrant smoke, Curtis is cooking 32 half chickens, eight enormous racks of ribs and a mess of baked potatoes, 18 inches off the coals. Chicken takes an hour and a half to cook, he says, ribs an hour and 20 minutes – till it’s falling off the bone.
Every few minutes a customer comes over to shake Curtis’s hand and pass the time.
If there were an election for King of Southern Vermont, Curtis could probably win it, if he wanted. I’d vote for him. King, after all, is a ceremonial position. It would leave plenty of time to cook his ribs.
“Yeah, I still like it,” Curtis says. “I see nice people all the time. Some of them have been coming here ever since I’ve been in business.”
Curtis is customarily assisted by his Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, C.J. – Curtis Junior.
C.J.’s predecessor, Isabel, “was five years old and she went to pig heaven,” Curtis says. “She got too fat. I got C.J. on a diet now, but it ain’t working.”
In the winter Curtis chops wood, and C.J. lives indoors with Curtis’ Great Dane, in a house just beyond the clearing. Every summer morning, C.J. trots over to the barbecue pit, then hangs out with Curtis in the shade. But Curtis sent C.J. home today.
“He wouldn’t do what he was told, so I sent him home,” Curtis says. “His job is to entertain the kids. But if he won’t work, he can’t stay.”
All this is beside the point, of course, the point being Curtis’ chicken and ribs. It’s the kind of food you take a bite of, and then whether you want to or not you close your eyes and stop doing or thinking of anything else.
Great coleslaw, too.
When I’m grown up like Curtis – he’s 70, but you wouldn’t guess it – I hope I smile as often as he does. If I make it, Curtis will be 85, and, I imagine, he’ll still be lighting a fire early every morning when the weather is good, and letting it burn for an hour or more before he starts cooking.
Every weekend he cooks up 300 to 400 half chickens, and “pert near half a ton of ribs.”
I like the rib bones – so soft you can eat them.
But one thing troubles me, and I can’t help but ask.
“Curtis,” I say, “so far as I know, there are seven wonders of the world.”
“That’s right,” he says.
“Well, yours is the ninth. So what’s the eighth?”
Curtis shoots me a look of concern, as though he cannot believe I could ask such a question.
“King Kong,” he says.
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