Hot BBQ, Cold Beer, Warm Hearts: A Love Story for July 4

Hot BBQ, Cold Beer, Warm Hearts: A Love Story for July 4

Sawpit Mercantile, 20643 Highway 145, is open year-round and offers catering in Telluride and Down Valley. Best to call ahead, 970-728-9898. The restaurant’s summer hours are Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Weekends, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Reach Sally Puff Courtney at 970-728-3086.

Jim Harley, owner, Sawpit Mercantile & bbq maven, with his wife, realtor/philanthropist Sally Puff Courtney.

Jim Harley, owner, Sawpit Mercantile & bbq maven, with his wife, realtor/philanthropist Sally Puff Courtney.

Lay on some happily-ever-aftering with a side of BBQ, season it with love, and top off with Colorado’s Own Sauce.

How about that for a recipe for success?

The juicy details make for a great story and one more thing to celebrate –  along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – over the Fourth of July holiday in Telluride (and throughout the summer).

Like BBQ, the love story required patience.

And (in the case of the BBQ alone), a little help from the “Meanest SOB” in the biz.

The end result?

Fireworks, of the personal and culinary variety.

For details, read on…

The Romance or When Sally Met Jim (because there would be no BBQ without the love story):

Sally Puff Courtney and Jim Harley first met in early September, 1972, when Sally transferred to Bucknell University.

Jim was already a student at the school and a fraternity brother of Sally’s brother, Jeff Puff. Jeff had taken it upon himself to introduce Sally to everyone in Delta Upsilon to help ease her transition into her new college community.

While Sally and Jim were in the same graduating class at Bucknell, they remained just friends. Both were involved romantically with other classmates. They would see each other now and again and say “hi.” Nothing more.

They both graduated in the Class of 1974, but did not see each other again for 25 years.

Sally married another Bucknell classmate and moved to Telluride.

Jim went on to attend graduate school at Cornell University and began a career in hotel development and brokerage.

Over the years, reunions kept the flame on a low burn; it took a lawsuit bring the big heat.

In 2010, Jim was involved in a case that was scheduled to be tried in Atlanta. Since his former fraternity brother Jeff Puff had become a noted attorney, as the trial approached, Jim called Jeff for advice. During one conversation, Jeff indicated sister Sally would be in Atlanta the same time Jim would be in town. He suggested the two get together for dinner. As Jim (now divorced) was now in a position to take things more seriously, he contacted Sally and made a date.

The lawsuit was settled prior to trial, but Jim traveled to Atlanta anyway: the long-awaited, much-anticipated date with Sally was not to be missed.

And dinner turned into a four-day first date.

The couple continued a long-distance relationship for a while, but the distance weighed heavily. Ultimately Jim left his buttoned-down corporate world forever, moving to Telluride in 2012. The couple tied the knot on July 3, 2014, so their second anniversary is now.

“We chose July 3rd for our wedding date because we didn’t want to compete with the Big Day on the 4th,” explained Sally.

Jim Harley owns and operates the Sawpit Mercantile providing “cheap gas, cold beer and warm hearts”  – and BBQ – to Telluride and Down Valley residents; Sally continues her career as one of the region’s top realtors (#1 at Telluride Sotheby’s International) and philanthropists, focused now on the upcoming Strokes of Genius Golf Tournament in Mountain Village, the largest and longest running local fundraiser granting scholarships to Telluride grads for their higher education.

The Fourth & BBQ, A brief history:

Across the country, BBQ has long played a starring role in July 4th celebrations. In fact the tradition of celebrating the Fourth with BBQ dates back to the beginning of our country.

Just after the Revolution, Americans marked Independence Day with public dinners and, in the South especially, those dinners quickly grew into large outdoor BBQs. According to one source, in 1808, for instance, the citizens of Oconee County, South Carolina, gathered in “an agreeable and natural arbor” where, as the local newspaper reported, they “partook of an elegant barbecue”. . . to celebrate the anniversary of our national existence.

According to Southern Living, by the 1820s, those celebrations had become highly regimented and standardized, paraphrasing:

Citizens from across a region would gather in a central location, form a procession and, led by the local militia, march to a church or the county courthouse. Ceremonies opened with a prayer followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence, then the crowd would sing patriotic songs and a prominent member of the community would deliver an oration based on a patriotic theme. Finally, everyone would retire to a shady grove where the bbq feast awaited.

These massive outdoor bbqs were free to all comers, and since the meat was donated by members of the community, it would be whatever local farmers had on hand, anything from pigs and chickens to goats and whole steers might end up roasting over wood coals in long pits dug into the ground. Simple, non-perishable items —sliced cucumbers, watermelon, and loaves of bread— were served alongside. After the feasting, the toasts began, always 13 in number to represent the original colonies…

As settlers moved westward, those from the Southern states took their BBQ tradition with them.

BBQ in Telluride (or how a weekend intensive leads to finger lickin’ good at Sawpit Mercantile):

Myron Mixon & Jim Harley, brothers in BBQ.

Myron Mixon & Jim Harley, brothers in BBQ.

The year he moved to Telluride, (2012), Jim bought Sawpit Mercantile, the Down Valley (about 12 miles as the crow flies from Telluride) old-timey general store from the Metzger-Masons. At the time, the place had lots of necessities (from baby wipes to bananas, booze, and beer), but the deck in the back overlooking the San Miguel was unused; ditto, the kitchen. His entire life, Jim had sampled BBQ all over the South. And as graduate of Cornell University’s prestigious School of Hotel Management, he was trained to deal with a demanding public and understood catering. Next steps were to purchase a smoker, watch lots of cooking demos on You Tube, and study a book by bestselling “‘cue guru” Myron Mixon, who bills himself as the “Meanest SOB” in the BBQ biz.

Jim came.

Everyone saw.

He conquered.

People (from as far away as France) stopped by the Sawpit Mercantile to sample the full-flavored, smoky pulled pork sandwich, as well as the ribs and chicken.

Jim upped the ante when he invented his very own Colorado BBQ sauce with a base in Colorado peaches, (plus ketchup, brown sugar, bourbon, and Southwest spices.)

But as good as it got was not good enough for Jim, who, back in April, went to ‘cue mecca, Unadella, Georgia, to study with The Man himself, Myron Mixon.

For the record, besides being a self-described SOB, Myron stars in the TV series “Barbecue Pitmasters”; he is also author of “Smokin with Myron” and “Everyday Barbecue: At Home with America’s Favorite Pitmaster.” Both books are New York Times bestsellers.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jim.”You only get one chance to learn from a master. I think I managed to teach myself the basics of great smoking, but this was my opportunity to gain knowledge from someone with decades of experience in the trade. When you get such a chance, you have to take it, learn, and pass on the results to your friends and consumers.” 

The weekend-long cooking school included pork shoulders, whole hog, chicken, and brisket. Injections, rubs, and marinades were also part of the curriculum:

“The experience was a real eye-opener,” said Jim. “Barbecue is a combination of art and a science. Based on my initial consumer response, the results of my efforts were good, but that immersion with Myron enabled me to take my product to a whole new (and delicious) level. Turns out the secret to great BBQ is the same as the secret to great sex: you have to pay attention to detail, but after getting the details correct, the slower you take things, the better the outcome for everyone.”

“Jim is an excellent pitmaster”’ said Myron. “He has natural skills that cannot be taught. Hopefully, what he learned with me will translate into even greater barbecue for the residents of Telluride and visitors to the region.” 

Given Jim’s track record, is there any doubt?

In conclusion- Sally & Jim on the Fourth:

“What does the Fourth mean to us? It’s a big day here in Telluride: family, friends, fun, festivities, fireworks, FREEDOM! 

And BBQ.

(Though “BBQ” does not quite work with the alliteration.)

Happy anniversary Sally and Jim.


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