Bittersweet look inside saccharine empire

Review Memoir


Sweet and Low

Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 273 pages / $25

Do not disinherit a man who makes his living with a pen. He may exact revenge by splashing the family's boils and foibles in black and white on the pages of a spectacularly entertaining book.

That is now the misfortune for the family of the late Benjamin Eisenstadt, self-made scion behind those ubiquitous pink packages of fake sugar piled in bowls on restaurant table-tops the world over. But it's a riotous reading experience for the rest of us, who get to enjoy Rich Cohen's roiling, boisterous, hysterical and weirdly scholarly remembrance of his messy, badly behaved Jewish clan in Sweet and Low.

The title of Cohen's book refers to the contrasting poles of family life - both vividly on display here - but also to Grandpa Ben's seminal invention: Sweet 'N Low, the sugar substitute that Eisenstadt, a lawyer/short-order cook in Brooklyn, N.Y., stumbled upon just when America's diet craze was ready to launch into a full-bore, post-World War II national obsession. Sweet 'N Low was a hundred-million-dollar idea, which might have been presumed to lead to a happily-ever-after ending for Eisenstadt and his progeny. Being human beings, however, things didn't turn out that way, but instead detoured into recrimination, estrangement, scandal and ultimately that most spiteful of punishments from beyond the grave, disinheritance.

Cohen, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of Tough Jews (a title an aunt demeans by mispronouncing as "Tough Juice"), retraces the tumultuous history of his family to try to decipher how they got from there to here, an endeavor that he knows is bound to fail given the tendency of family relationships to defy rational progression. That may be particularly true of Cohen's family, populated, at least in his description, by a collection of Dickensian loons, including an agoraphobic aunt; an uncle who, while a Sweet 'N Low vice-president, rarely ventures to work, preferring the company of his cats at home; and another uncle, whom Cohen refers to as "Marvelous Marvin," Ben's weak-kneed successor as Sweet 'N Low's president, who only manages to avoid federal prison by cutting a deal with prosecutors.

Sweet and Low would probably be considered an exercise in venom if Cohen's voice were not so appealing - tart but far short of lacerating. He feels wronged, particularly on behalf of his classy mother, Ellen, the one who is cut out of grandma Bessie's will for grievances petty, imagined and distorted over the years. (The last is over Ellen's attempt to address Ben's failing health.) Still, Cohen cannot seem to rouse himself to genuine antipathy toward the aunts and uncles who have conspired in the ostracism of the Cohens.

And that geniality gives readers permission to enjoy the eccentricities of this family without excusing them their selfishness, shortsightedness and spitefulness.

Sweet and Low is also a nostalgic portrait of the forgotten sort of companies forged from one man's acumen, persistence and moxie. Before Sweet 'N Low, Ben Eisenstadt came up with another can't-miss idea, which was to pack sugar in individual packets. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about patents, and, according to Ben, Domino Sugar stole the idea. But Ben didn't put aside his packaging brainstorm. In 1957, he hit upon a mixture of saccharine and lactose that aped the qualities of sugar but without the calories. Diet history was made and the American Dream (briefly) realized.

In telling the Sweet 'N Low saga, both the story of a family and a business, Cohen ambles down a number of instructive digressive paths, among them, short histories of sugar cultivation, dieting, modern packaging, influence peddling and Brooklyn. Manipulation of societal appetites and imaging figure prominently in his view of history and especially in commercialism.

"It was the start of the age in which we still live, the moment that body type was first revalued, the end of the glorious fat man," he writes in the section about the rise of weight-loss mania. "The prosperous fat man became the jolly fat man, and the jolly fat man became the lonely fat man, and the lonely fat man became the dangerous fat man."

Manipulation, in Cohen's mind, lies at the core of the business model. It seems to be ensconced in much family life as well.

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