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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.