Man sheds tears over old Birmingham restaurant

Terry Barr
Terry Barr

Today’s guest columnist is Terry Barr.

In my adopted hometown of Greenville, we have two synagogues and one Jewish deli.

I am not a member of either religious house because long ago I distanced myself from organized practice, except of the yoga, or writing, kind.

And while my gluten tolerance is on the very low side, and while I know that cured red meat isn’t the best thing for my arteries, I can’t stay away from Greenfield’s, our Jewish bagelry.

It’s in a modern shopping strip and so despite the menorahs and Thumann’s meats signs and the assurances of homemade knish, Greenfield’s atmosphere is not very enticing to me (though the pastrami and the onion bagels are truly something to relish).

Every time I eat there, what I’m really consuming are those rye bread sandwiches filled with corned beef and heavy mustard that we used to buy from Mountain Brook/Birmingham’s old deli, Browdy’s.

It’s true that in the days of my youth — the late 1950’s and 60’s — what we’d mainly buy from Browdy’s was the kosher salami and bologna, with Kaiser poppy seed rolls, because my grandmother (Ma Ma) was on a fixed income — fixed because she had to save her gambling funds — but before I worried about cost and meat quality, I loved and longed for such sandwiches. [Later, when I had my own funds, it was definitely corned beef on rye.]

Browdy’s moved at least twice in my memory, all within the heartbeat of Mountain Brook village, which still looks like a little Eastern European shtetl in a certain way to my eyes — I guess if that shtetl also had fashion stores from Paris or Milan. Memory and perspective do this to a person, so please just indulge me as you would that salami sandwich.

The location I remember best and that housed Browdy’s the longest, was right there in the village center, in that rounded intersection of maybe five different streets. The deli had a grocery section and to be lost in those aisles — and I was a kid who loved going grocery shopping with his mother — seemed like a wandering in another time before pogroms ever happened — if there ever was such a time.

Oh, the mustards, the canned delicacies, the matzos! Before I ever went to Zabar’s, I felt like I knew what Zabar’s would be like.

In Birmingham, there was another old deli, Felix’s — where my mother believed the corned beef was synonymous with heaven — but I never had its pleasure and so it exists only in my mythic memory/lore.

Sundays often dragged me along, as my parents had to do. My gentile mother forced me to go to church every Sunday morning, and then, after we consumed a hearty southern home-cooked lunch, my Jewish father would force me to leave my football playing friends — all of these Sundays seem to occur in fall when Alabama football was our true form of worship — and we’d all drive from Bessemer to those red-bricked apartment buildings in Mountain Brook, near the country club and Japanese Gardens, to consume even more rich food. Ma Ma, would provide Coke, Golden Flake chips (because Bear Bryant said to), and cinnamon rolls or Barber’s ice cream sundaes for dessert.

I loved football, but when I sang “I am a lineman for the county” I meant more of the position I’d likely be playing due to my youthful girth than any telephone wire stretching across some winter prairie.

Despite whatever reluctance I had in going to either of these Sunday ritual places, I also loved being there. And most of all, I loved Browdy’s and those sandwiches, despite having to hear my mother’s complaints of,  “Why can’t we get some corned beef for a change?”

Ma Ma died in 1995, and my father, only five years later. By then, I was living here in Greenville, and missing everything, as we seem to do always and forever once we, or the people and things we love without ever understanding why, have passed.

I did get to go to Browdy’s on certain homecomings, but only once after they moved to their final location in the Western Plaza.

My Dad’s cousin Arnold would tell me that it had changed and wasn’t so good anymore, but on the day when Dad died, Arnold asked what he could do for me, and I told him that, “I wish we could all gather at Browdy’s again,” and so when he arrived at Dad’s burial site — a secular cemetery in Bessemer — Arnold carried with him a brown paper sack full of Browdy’s rye bread, corned beef, and half-sour pickles.

And that was the moment I cried, because on this early winter afternoon — not a Sunday because that would have made it all too perfect — I felt so fully everything I had lost.

Now I wonder what I want, what I’m getting, when I go to Greenfield’s and order something that is clearly not good for me, except in the very real ways that it is.

In this way, I’m being dragged into Sunday again, a place I now truly love. It was all just so very rich.

Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer, graduating from Jess Lanier High School in 1974, and the University of Montevallo in 1979. He is the author of four essay collections, the latest of which–The American Crisis Playlist (2020-2021)–is available now at redhawkpublications.com. He writes regularly at medium.com/@terrybarr and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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11 thoughts on “Man sheds tears over old Birmingham restaurant”

  1. Browdy’s was a true legend in my family and I do believe it could also qualify as a religious experience in deli-style foods. Everything was perfect but the treat I always enjoyed was the sugar cookie with tiny chocolate chips! Wow ….I have tried to duplicate but never succeeded. Thanks for these great memories!

  2. I too remember Browdys as a youngster. My stepfather was Jewish and that is where my parents shopped. As I got older, because I wasn’t Jewish, I ventured out to other various venues. I always went back to Browdys….I am sorry the store isn’t here anymore. Best butcher and restaurant I have experienced through the years. Thank you for the memories….

    1. I had a gentile friend who got that sandwich one day, and after, he doubled over in pain. I thought: the Kosher-style gods are striking, though it turned out he had appendicitis!

  3. Thank you, David, for sharing Terry’s writing.

    Terry, I haven’t lived in Birmingham in 40+ years but your description of Mountain Brook Village and Browdy’s stirred up the most nostalgia I’m capable of these days.

    I graduated from Berry High School in 1972 and the University of Montevallo in 1976, so it’s possible you and I crossed paths someplace. I co-wrote the script and music for Purple production in 1975; I, too had literary aspirations.

    I live in Boston, MA now and you’d have to threaten my dogs to make me move. But if Browdy’s re-opened, I’d sure consider visiting BHM one more time.

    By the way, I disagree with you stridently about Houston. I lived there for six years and I loved it. Since leaving Birmingham I’ve lived in St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and now Boston. Houston is a strong #2 in my list of favorite homes. Yeah, I know the heat and humidity are obscene and friends who still live there say there are entirely too many “good Christians” packing guns wandering the streets, but my recollections are fond.

    Keep up with good writing, fellow Falcon.

    1. Hey Bil,

      I think I remember you, and while I didn’t participate in College night, I did lean Purple. Glad our paths are crossing now at least. I loved visiting Boston, and if you ever get to Greenville, SC, please let me know! Warmly, Terry

  4. Years ago, as a Commercial Realtor, I was honored to help find a new place of business for Browdy’s Delicatessen. They wanted to be in Mt. Brook Village. At that time, Steve Browdy was the family’s spokesman. Steve knew exactly what he wanted and challenged me to find it. Store availabilities in Mt. Brook were very scarce as business zoning was strictly limited. The story goes: Steve grew up in a small delicatessen started by his immigrant father who was noted for making things happen, like, making horseradish ,from scratch, on the second floor above the deli; they “canned” it and put the jars on the shelf downstairs for their customers. Steve was trained at the famous business “school of hard knocks”. At first , we found a small shop to rent located on the ground floor corner of a dance studio. This was Browdy’s first move into Mt.Brook. The rent was modest but so was the size of the space. After a short term there, Steve asked me about a restaurant building he heard might be closing. It was the former HILLS GROCERY STORE (converted to a restaurant ) prominently located on the Circle with parking! This building was HUGE compared to their little corner store and so was the RENT! The property owner had set his price and it was now Steve’s decision. I did not see how this could work, but I had underestimated Steve’s lessons from his “school of hard knocks.” After very short deliberations, Steve , surprisingly, approved the Lease terms! He must have made a good decision as Browdys enjoyed many years of success at this former HILLS grocery store. I believe another BROWDY’S -STYLE deli would , again, be very successful in Mt. Brook Village IF the deli was operated by people with an ardent desire to succeed!

  5. Great piece. Browdy’s was a true mountain brook staple as were Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Steve. They taught their family the meaning of hard work and the true taste of southern Jewish food.

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