Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006)
Imagine that your grandfather was the founder of one of the world's most famous companies, having coined a simple product that spurred the creation of the dieting industry. Through hard work, and relentless hours of overseeing his firm, Grandpa had amassed a fortune that someday would be coming, in part, to you. And then, when Grandpa died, followed by Grandma, you learn that your mother, one of four siblings, and “her issue” had been cut out of the will entirely? You were getting nada, not a farthing, not even one of those pink packets of the famous sweetener that had revolutionized the dieting industry, Sweet 'N Low. Would you write a book and air out all the family's dirty little secrets? You betcha! That's exactly what Richard Cohen did in Sweet and Low.
By far, Part I of the tell-all is the most engaging section of the book as Cohen takes the reader back to turn of the century (meaning the 19th to the 20th) when Brooklyn was teeming with eager European immigrants who were all looking for those American streets paved with gold. Before he found the key to his American fortune, Cohen's grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, served as a short order cook in a cafeteria located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, despite the fact that he had been educated to be a lawyer. The dynamics of the family as the kids are growing up is enjoyable reading, and Cohen peppers it with photos of weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and of his Uncle Adam, an American war hero who lost his life during the Second World War.
Aside from the “rags to riches” tale of the first part of the book, Cohen describes other family members, including his agoraphobic aunt who serves as the director of much of the family angst, and his grandmother who loves to reinvent herself, including Americanizing her name from Pessie to Bessie to Betty. Told with the flair and tongue in cheek humor of Nelson De Mille's wiseass John Corey, the family saga is the most entertaining part of the book.
Cohen's grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, the cafeteria worker, harbored a pet peeve regarding how sugar coagulated at the top of the glass containers in which it was served, making it difficult to pour as well as unsanitary to serve, so he came up with a clever idea; why not package sugar into serving sizes so that it was hygienic and untouched by human hands when put on a table? Unfortunately, this witless short order cook/ lawyer first introduced his brilliant idea to a sugar company, which promptly filched the notion since Eisenstadt hadn't had the foresight to patent his clever invention, and Grandpa Ben appeared to have been trumped.
However, when Eisenstadt's son, Marvin (who dubbed himself “Uncle Marvelous) came to work with his father, they came up with an even better idea. Having observed the struggles of diabetics in keeping their blood sugar levels low but still being able to feed their sweet teeth, Marvelous Marvin and Grandpa Ben conceived of a saccharine based sweetener that would be low in calorie and taste pretty good. Voila! The birth of Sweet 'N Low in its distinctive pink packets.
In an article entitled “Just Screw It,” published in Slate, Cohen made this observation, “My book Sweet 'N Low, for example, is a memoir about my family, or that part of my family that as they say in the Bible, came from the loins of Grandpa Ben, a short order cook at a diner in Brooklyn, who invented the sugar packet and Sweet 'N Low, and with them built a fortune that would be the cause of so much trouble; the corporate scandal for one, and the raid by the FBI, the criminal prosecution, and the disinheritance of my mother and her children.” This quote serves as our segway to the second part of Cohen's family saga.
Part II of Sweet 'N Low takes the reader into the troubles that Ben runs into as his Cumberland Packing Company continues to rise in value. Beginning with the black cloud of the federal ban on saccharin, executives in the company turned to the dark side and brought in a few very shady characters, who lead them ultimately into a nasty federal investigation. Cohen describes the fiasco in this way, “The saccharin ban was like a piece of bad intelligence from which every other bad decision had followed. It corrupted Marvin, it made Joseph Asaro vice president for governmental affairs, it broughtt the company into an association with Alfonse D'Amato, it spurred the FDA to approve aspartame, which remade the entire industry. Fourteen rats get cancer, and nothing will ever be the same.”
Somewhere along the line Ben Eisenstadt hired men named Joseph Asaro and Gil and Mario Mederos to work at the Cumberland factory. These guys were real operators, using company money to pay for extravagant homes, cars, vacations, etc. Ultimately, in the spring of 1993 Marvin Eisenstadt, Joe Asaro, and several other Cumberland Packing employees and contractors were arrested and charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy by the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York. Because of the wider implications of the involvement of Senator Alphonse D'Amato and possibly the Bonanno crime family the story broke exploded in the news. Aside from stealing money from the company, income tax evasion, and other white collar crimes, there was another implication; that perhaps old Ben had been dealing in a little cocaine.
But in sifting through all of the trial transcripts, the messages and notes left, the stories that he heard, Cohen isn't really sure what was fact and what was fiction in trying to detangle the knot of guilt. Was his grandfather innocent and used by people whom he trusted were running the company properly (Asaro and the Mederos)? Or did he choose to look the other way because it was easier to let those men handle the big decisions? Or, was Ben a huge part of the greater conspiracy, reaping the benefits of what others were doing in his name? Cohen leaves us unclear on culpability, but chooses instead to launch into his grandfather's largesse to Maimonides Hospital, which came at the end of Ben's life.
This theme leads to the final section of the book in which Cohen reveals what his mother, Ellen, had done that was so heinous that she and her children were forever disinherited from the family fortune. The final section of the work is brief, but fascinating, and even heart breaking. In her desperation to find her father the very best doctor she could to help her father in a tricky by-pass surgery, Ellen Cohen recommended one of New York's most renowned cardiologists, David Blumenthalj, who took on her father's case. Using one of those favorite idioms regarding the medical profession, “the surgery was a success but he patient died,” and for this the Cohen branch of the Eisenstadt family was forever tainted and eschewed. No money for you!
Sweet and Low is a different kind of family saga in that Cohen filters the events through a lens that doesn't assign blame and try to embarrass his relatives who have shunned his family. As a reader the book doesn't leave one with the bitter after taste that many of the artificial sweeteners on the market do, despite their protestations to the contrary. The New York Time Book Review cited Sweet and Low as a “notable book of the year,” and the Washington Post Book World dubbed it the “Best Book of the Year.” Cohen's work is a smooth read, it glitters with humor, and best of all, it holds up the mirror to each of us who has a family (and who doesn't) and asks, “Is the craziness in my family any different? Definitely a recommended read.