Sweet and Low: A Family Story

( 13 )

Overview

Sweet and Low is the bittersweet, hilarious story of Ben Eisenstadt, who invented sugar packets and Sweet'N Low, and amassed the great fortune that would later destroy his family. It is a story of immigrants, Jewish gangsters, and Brooklyn; of sugar, saccharine, obesity, and diet crazes; of jealousy, betrayal, and ambition. Disinherited along with his mother and siblings, Rich Cohen has written a rancorous, colorful history of his extraordinary family and their pursuit of the ...

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Overview

Sweet and Low is the bittersweet, hilarious story of Ben Eisenstadt, who invented sugar packets and Sweet'N Low, and amassed the great fortune that would later destroy his family. It is a story of immigrants, Jewish gangsters, and Brooklyn; of sugar, saccharine, obesity, and diet crazes; of jealousy, betrayal, and ambition. Disinherited along with his mother and siblings, Rich Cohen has written a rancorous, colorful history of his extraordinary family and their pursuit of the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
One reader described this family biography concisely and accurately as "the history of the sweet tooth and the Machiavellian family that tamed it." The Machiavelli at its center is Ben Eisenstadt, the author's grandfather, who built a business empire based on saccharine and dextrose. After World War II, this former short-order cook invented first the sugar packet and then, with the help of his son Marvin, sugar substitute Sweet 'N Low. These discoveries brought immigrant Ben and his family a fortune but also provoked a fierce 40-year battle for control of the company. Now happily disinherited, Rick Cohen recapitulates the saga of his family's twisted American dream with a bittersweet mix of affection and regret.
Michiko Kakutani
Although Mr. Cohen is probably using this book to settle scores on some level, he has also managed to turn his family's rancorous history into a gripping memoir: a small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling — and often hilarious — parable about the pursuit and costs of the American Dream.
— The New York Times
John Barlow
So what made Rich Cohen write this book? His mother, daughter of the patriarch, was cruelly disinherited in the aftermath of the great man's death. Is it, then, about the money? Is Rich Cohen, the grandson who got squat from the Sweet'N Low millions, taking revenge? No; this book is about his mother, and the way that her family -- the whole saccharine-sticky lot of them -- were truly and unnaturally awful to her, a woman who makes but brief appearances in the narrative and is never eulogized. A woman who could have survived her vile relatives only through a tremendous inner strength. It is this strength which, subtly, gloriously, Rich Cohen celebrates.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Cohen’s unflinching and hilarious account of his family begins with his grandfather, a lawyer turned cafeteria counterman who “built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble.” Combining saccharin, a powder three hundred times as sweet as sugar, with lactose, he produced the sugar substitute Sweet’N Low, which went on sale in 1957, in its iconic pink packets. It was aimed at diabetics, but diet mania made it ubiquitous, and by 1975 the family factory, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was producing forty million packets a day. Cohen, whose branch of the family was disinherited in a power struggle, acidly narrates the gradual unravelling of the family and its fortune, and detours through the histories of sugar, Brooklyn, dieting, and packaged foods. The nadir came in 1993, when federal agents raided the factory; a reputed mafioso who had been put in charge of lobbying against a saccharin ban had funnelled illegal contributions to politicians and bilked the company of millions.
Publishers Weekly
Cohen's grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, created the artificial sweetener saccharine and modified a tea-bagging machine to produce individual, sanitary packets of sugar substitute, calling it Sweet`N Low. Cohen expands the story beyond the family by incorporating truncated histories of Jews in New York, the saga of sugar alternatives and the rise and fall of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Nevertheless, internecine wars over the family fortune, ending with a legal battle over Grandma's will, dominates. Despite the abridgment, accounts of dead relatives tangentially connected to the story and FDA history are rambling and overlong. Fortunately, the tale is laced with enough humor and family shenanigans to keep the listener's attention. Cohen, the son of Eisenstadt's disinherited daughter, has a bit of an axe to grind. As reader, he keeps his voice even, perhaps too level, with the same monotonous emphasis on a noun or adjective in every sentence. A hint of smugness creeps in as Grandpa Ben and his son, Marvin, are convicted of misdeeds that are more low than sweet. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 13). (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The history of the artificial sweetener giant-its humble beginnings, its rise to prominence, and the high-profile criminal doings that got into the mix-would be interesting enough. When the saga is written by the (disinherited) grandson of the inventor, who combines the product's history with his personal quest for the truth and his considerable skills at crafting compelling tableaux, you have one sweet read. Cohen (contributing editor, Rolling Stone; Tough Jews) doesn't just rely on family anecdotes; he digs through court records, interviews relatives (some won't talk with him), and peruses library microfilm to reveal various layers of truth. Everything from the origins of the name Sweet and Low and its packet design to his family's involvement in organized crime is up for investigation. Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics-the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York-much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized. Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Jennifer Zarr, NYPL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the author's family invented Sweet'N Low, got rich, collapsed in scandal and set him free by disinheritance. The first and best section of this haphazard book by Cohen (Machers and Rockers, 2004, etc.) follows the rise of his grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, born in New York in 1906 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. Eisenstadt supplemented his slow-going law career by opening a diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It boomed with the war years, then went bust, so he opened a factory in which loose tea was packed into tea bags. Thinking the technique might be adapted to sugar, he suggested the idea to sugar companies, who thanked the naive, patent-less inventor and started making the packets themselves. Only later did Ben and his son Marvin turn saccharin into Sweet'N Low, the sugar substitute that would take the world by storm. mob-associated guys who liked to bill the company for the construction of their mansions. Cohen's wing of the family was disinherited after a dramatic and truly ugly fight about a will presided over by Aunt Gladys, a misanthropic shut-in who wielded frightening powers via telephone and fax. Cohen can't quite decide what kind of book he's writing: He offers a mini-history of sugar here, confusing family history there. But at its best, sardonically dissecting an unlikely success, it spins gold. A cracked family saga and an ode to Brooklyn, that incubator of immigrants and ideas.
From the Publisher
"A small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling—and often hilarious—parable about the pursuit and costs of the American dream . . . recounted with uncommon acuity and wit."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"How decadent to indulge in Rich Cohen's rollicking account of his family and the business it built. . . . Cohen has a terrific eye for detail, the little things that affix people and places in our memories, the gestures and miscues that shape family history. . . . It's a guilty pleasure—sort of like sugar without calories."—The New York Times Book Review

"A wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch. . . . He moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get."—The Washington Post

"It is Cohen's good fortune to be on the side of the family that was disinherited. Sweet revenge is the energy behind this glorious book."—Time

"Cohen tells a fascinating story about family bonds in his quest to discover why his mother was cast out. His skewering of his relatives is merciless. . . . Plenty of writers have dissected their less-than-perfect families.Dealing with the issue with this much heart, though—that's extraordinary."—People

"Hilarious."—Newsweek

"This book is an absolute pleasure: expansive, fascinating, funny and full of historical tidbits to read aloud to anyone around."—Salon.com

"Never less than fascinating . . . Sweet and Low might as well be a Balzacian nineteenth-century novel complete with a crisis, a contested will, and a tragic resolution."—Los Angeles Times

"Unfailingly entertaining . . . Echoes the cadences of such literary antecedents as Saul Bellow."—The Wall Street Journal

"Cohen writes entertainingly, lining up characters like objects in a curio cabinet. . . . He is an unusually nimble writer, capable of casually broaching grander themes. By balancing his more ambitious material with Eisenstadt family lore, and moving the drama away from the money he'll never see, he makes the story of Sweet'N Low something more than just a pleasant taste that lingers in the mouth."—The New York Observer

"Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. . . . Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics—the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York—much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized."—Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312426019
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/20/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 635,866
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

Biography

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

Author biography courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Good To Know

Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Cohen:

"I once had a job cleaning dead animals off the road after storms."

"I invented a whiffle-ball pitch still known in the Chicagoland areas as, ‘Cohen's rising sinker.'"

"I can't swim."

"I like the idea of scale-modeling, but have never actually done it. When I was a kid, I had a stamp collection, and a collection of hotel keys."

"I like to watch baseball and hockey, and don't know how anyone can watch golf. Though I like to play."

"I have two small children, and that uses up every bit of free time that might otherwise be used for hobby-ing. And that's fine with me."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rocket
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 30, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lake Forest, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., Tulane University, 1990

Read an Excerpt

Sweet and Low

PART ONE

1.

Cumberland Packing, the company that manufactures Sweet'N Low, occupies a boxy building across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It sits amid the factories of Fort Greene, the last of the city's vanishing industrial base. The neighborhood is ringed by housing projects, dark windows looking out on the long skies over Williamsburg,.

In the summer of 2003, I drove to the factory to talk to my uncle Marvin, the president of the company. I had not seen much of him since my grandmother died. I gave my name at the door and was told to go around the side of the building, where my uncle was waiting.

To me, Marvin is always forty-five, blond, thin-hipped, and handsome, the kind of uncle who fixes things. When I was a kid, he took me on tours of the plant and had an ID made that showed my face in front of Cumberland's pink musical logo. He always had the newest gadgets and the biggest televisions. When he was a block from his car, he'd press a button and the trunk would pop open. It was a convertible. I would sit in back as the storefronts of Brooklyn whistled by. Even into his sixties, Marvin was as peppy as a camp counsellor. Now, as I shook his hand andfollowed him inside, he seemed slower and sadder. He had a tremor in his voice and a shuffle in his step. Uncle Marvelous had gotten old! It's like this: young, young, young, young, young, OLD. Like the sun going down and down and down and bang, you're in the dark. It reminded me of something a journeyman baseball player once told me: "Some guys go on and on, but other guys just fall off the table."

Marvin led me to his office. It's cramped, with the kind of drop ceiling you can fling pencils into. One wall is covered with photographs. By following these, you can watch Marvin age—face fill out, eyes deepen, children arrive. Some of the pictures go back to the 1950S—Marvin in sepia tone, trim and tan, like a memory of Coney Island. He smiles in others, puts his arm around his wife, my beautiful aunt Barbara, or holds his kids on his back. None of the pictures was taken less than five or ten years ago, maybe when the scandal broke. It's as if he just shut off the camera and stopped recording. Most were taken on vacation, tropical beaches on Caribbean islands—the triumph of the Jews, across the Jordan at last. My family had been along on some of these trips, but there was no hint of us—why should there have been? It made me blanch to see the familiar settings with his sister Ellen and her issue so neatly excised.

Marvin wore a sleeveless fleece coat—an "alpine wife-beater" or a "muscle fleece"—over an Izod shirt. His face was florid, as if one of those Caribbean tans had recurred like a fever. He said he had been prescribed a pill for failing memory, but told me he forgets to take it. He does remember that he forgets, which struck me as suspicious. An aquarium is built into one of his walls. It was once a saltwater tank, schools of tropical fish as gaudy as muscle cars amid a world of colored gravel and faux seaweed, a vibrant seascape that has degraded into an acid pond.

The fish died in the course of a single season some years ago, one of those strange kills that can decimate a closed system. I learned about it while reading the court papers. (A defense attorney wanted to know why Marvin had asked Cumberland's controller and chief financial officer, Gil Mederos, to clean out the tank.) "Unfortunately, yes, there was one incident where there were saltwater fish, which are very delicate, and allthe fish were dying," Marvin testified. "I felt so terrible. I remember telling Gil to cover the tank so I couldn't see the fish die."

Marvin asked why I had come. I told him about the book I wanted to write: It would be about Ben and Betty and the factory; and Brooklyn; and the waterfront; and the Second World War; and Betty's brother Abraham, who died in the Philippines and won the Purple Heart and the Silver Star; and Bubba, Betty's mother, who tried to jump off the roof of her Brooklyn apartment house; and the diner where Ben first worked; and the diner across from the Navy Yard, where Ben invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low. And it would be about the history of sugar, which is the history of the West, and how Sweet'N Low is part of that history; and about dieting, and fat people; and packing, and the saccharin ban that almost wiped out the company; and Equal and Splenda; the whole epic of uncles and aunts, Gladys in her bed; and my father and mother, and Ira, and the will, and the lawsuit my parents threatened to bring, and how my brother went with a lawyer and a stenographer and a videographer into the house in Flatbush to depose my aunt, and how, during a break in that testimony, my brother asked Gladys if the pizza place where he used to eat as a kid, where the pizza was so greasy and delicious, was still in business; and the scandal, and the kickbacks, and the raid by the Feds; and always the factory sitting on the waterfront, smoke rising from its chimneys, millions and millions of pink packets pouring off its belts.

That is, I got carried away and threw my arms around and made boasts for the book, and if Marvin would help me, great, and if not, not; and as I spoke, he grew more and more florid; then, at last, he spoke. It was a shout that had collapsed on itself, what might be left of a Bobby Knight harangue after that harangue had passed through a black hole.

He said, "You do what you want, I just don't want you to make my mother and father look bad."

He said, "Your mother wanted to get the money away from Gladys."

He said, "I don't know what your father has against me."

He said, "I agreed to talk to you only because it was you, and Barbara and I always liked you, but if your brother or father had called, forget it."

I said, "My brother or father would never have called."

He said, "I will help you, but I want you to let me proofread whatever you write."

I said, "No."

I said, "Look, Uncle Marvin, I did not come to make you look bad, or look good. I just want to figure out the truth."

I said, "For all I know, my parents have been the biggest assholes in the world."

I said, "You know, when you are young, you accept things as you are told they are, but when you get older, you look around and wonder and you want to know: Is that really how it was?"

He said, "My father was a great main."

I said, "I think so, too."

Hehad a way of speaking about his father and mother, and about his siblings, even my own mother, as if they were people whom I had never met. It was as if, to deal with this situation, he had convinced himself I was just some local newspaper reporter working on a human-interest story.

He said, "That lawsuit your brother brought almost killed me."

He said, "Gladys follows your career, Richard. She reads everything you write."

He said, "If there is a heaven and a hell, your brother is not going to heaven."

When Marvin spoke about my mother, his eyes filled with tears.

He said, "The thing you've got understand is this: Betty hated Gladys. She was trapped with her in that house. Betty hated Gladys and she loved your mother."

He said this again: "Betty hated Gladys and she loved your mother."

It was like the big reveal in act three, but it made no sense.

"Well, if that's true," I asked. "Why did Betty disinherit my mother?"

He said, "Well, I don't know what you mean by 'disinherit.' Because if you think that your mother was disinherited, then I was disinherited, and Ira was disinherited. The only one who was really left anything in that will was Gladys. To be perfectly candid, the only people that were disinherited were you and your brother and your sister. Because my mother left my kids fifty thousand dollars apiece. I paid my kids that money. Gladys could not afford to give up the money from the estate. So it came fromMarvin Ernest Eisenstadt. Period. So my mother's will actually cost me fifty thousand dollars times four. I mean three. One, two—how many kids have I got? Fifty thousand dollars times four. That's what the will cost me. And here I am paying off the lawyers because your mother's contested the will."

I told Uncle Marvin that I wanted to call Gladys and talk to her the way I was talking to him, and he said, "Okay, but I don't want you to tell her that we had this visit."

I said, "Fine. I will just call her on my own."

He said, "But she'll wonder why you're calling."

I said, "I'll tell her about the book. I'll tell her I'm getting older. I'll tell her I'm having a kid. I want to know the story."

"You're having a kid?"

"Yes."

"Congratulations, Richard."

He said, "Don't ask Gladys for anything. Tell her you just wanted to give her a call. Say whatever you want. Just keep me out of it."

I said, "Fine."

He said, "Don't tell her you came here to see me."

I said, "Fine."1

He said, "I don't think you should tell your father about this visit either."

I said, "Fine."

He said, "Your father gave instructions. He said I was never to talk to your mother again. It wasn't good for her health."

"He said that?"

"Yes, but that's between us."

I said, "Fine."

He said, "This is not easy for me. You children were always a big part of us. And yet it's not so unusual either, this kind of split in a family."

I said, "I guess it's why so few people know their second cousins."

He said, "That's right. And basically it's all because your mother and father wanted the money. And the only one who suffered because of it was me."

I said, "I don't think it was all about money for my mother."

He said, "Then what was it about?"

I said, "Well, it was about ... love."

He said, "Well, when you contest a will, you are not asking for love. You are asking for money."

Here's what I wanted to say: You are a momma's boy, Marvin, and you never grew up, and never left home, and never took that cover off the fish tank, and maybe got beat up but never learned from it, and you were given the company and the product itself, which generates over sixty million dollars a year in sale,2 and all the property and rights, and I know because I've seen the papers; you've been handed everything you own, so for you to say you know what it means to be cut off and told that you do not count and to have your mother say, with her last words on earth, to my daughter and her issue I leave nothing, well, it's like the man sitting on a pile of doubloons telling the man cadging for a cup of coffee, "You care only about money."

That's what I wanted to say.

Here's what I did say: "I could be wrong Uncle Marvin ... but it's my sense ... if in the will my mom had been left ... something of symbolic value ..."

He said, "I told my mother that. I told her, 'Give Ellen some little thing,' but she said no. I said give her some little thing just so she won't come back and complain. But she wouldn't do it. My mother was a stubborn woman. Toward the end she was even more stubborn."

I said, "If she had just left her a brooch or something."

I don't know why I said a brooch. Maybe because my grandma Betty was always wearing a brooch. She was one of those old women with a gold tarantula with ruby eyes pinned just below her shoulder.

He said, "Your mother should think of the people she's hurting."

I said, "I don't think anybody's happy about this."

He said, "I agree. But that's just between us."

And then we settled down and talked, for one hour, or two or three—a long time, anyway—about the factory, Ben, everything. When I asked about the scandal, Marvin said he had been the victim of a surfeit of trust. He spoke so much about ethics and doing the right thing because the right thing needs doing that it made me nervous. If you call the factory and get his voice mail, the message ends (or used to), "Have a nice day, and make it an even nicer day for someone else."

Then he took me on a tour of the factory. Out of his office, through an anteroom, onto the factory floor. The plant that began here as a cafeteria in the 1940s has since spread across the street into the Navy Yard and across the world, with facilities in North America, South America, and Europe. To me, Cumberland, with its antiquated packing machines and mixing rooms, is a perfect example of the vanishing urban factory, the behemoth that swallows up workers and forests and spits out product and smoke. To most people, the factory is more concept than actual locale, a place of misfortune, whistles, boredom, and injury. The factory owner is out of Dickens, the evil grandfather, Scrooge. But for a boy, the factory still carries a nineteenth-century sense of awe. It's an erector set. It's amazing machines. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the boss is not the fat cat exploiter of lore. He is the tinkerer, the visionary whose vision has remade the world. At the end of that book, Willy Wonka fears only for his legacy, finding his successor in Charlie, but you just know the kid will never be up to the task. Within five years, Charlie will go public, sell to Hershey, or get indicted.

During peak hours at Cumberland, the packing machines rattle and the building vibrates and the workers shout over the racket, and all of this builds into a roar. As the packets are filled, saccharin dust drifts into the air, and you breathe it into your lungs. It flavors everything sickly sweet. To make Sweet'N Low, Cumberland uses tons of cream of tartar,dextrose, and saccharin each day. The ingredients are combined in a mixing room on the second floor, a lab where workers wear bathing caps and booties. You see them behind glass, stirring the premix. This product is fed into tremendous whirling, Sheeleresque machines, which cut and load it into packets and dump it onto a conveyor belt that winds through the factory like a river. Every packet is tested and weighed. On the factory floor, the conveyor belt breaks into tributaries, each headed for a different machine. Ladies in hairnets direct this flow into boxes, which totter off to the shipping bay, where they are loaded onto trucks that carry them all over the region.

As Marvin walks across the floor, he shouts, "Hola!"

The women at the machines shout, Hola!"right back.

This is meant to show Marvin as a man of the people, a regular guy. But because it's so theatrical and because I've read so many newspaper articles in which my uncle executes the same trick, it makes him seem less like a regular guy than like the boss of a sugar plantation walking the fields at harvest time.

Hola, workers!

Hola, Marvin!

But I was less interested in the workers than I was in the machines. Cumberland started with the machines. With these machines, Ben took the chaos and diversity of Brooklyn, all those neighborhoods with all those appetites and all that merchandise, and stacked it and packed it and readied it for sale. Ben packed sugar in the early years, but he also packed soy sauce, perfume, and Sea-Monkeys. Ben had dozens of patents. Marvin has still more. Marvin started on the machines. In his first years at the factory, he came to work in coveralls, a grease monkey with tools on his belt. He is a genius with his hands. You can see evidence of this all over the factory.

He led me up a short flight of steps into a wreck of a room. The floor was covered with debris, the windows were boarded, and sunlight streamed through the cracks making Jacob's ladders in the dust. This was the site of the old cafeteria that was the beginning of it all. It's not hard to picture the room as it was during the Second World War, when it was likeKatz's on Houston Street, a big cafeteria on the waterfront, sailors and factory workers loading steel trays with chicken and fish and getting their order cards punched. Ben worked the counter, refilled the coffee cups, watered the whiskey, and dragged out the drunks.

Marvin then took me to see my cousin Little Steven. I've always called him Little Steven to distinguish him from my brother. It's a nickname that goes back to a vacation when Steven was the youngest and the smallest in the family and spoke in grunts and groans because Chewbacca was his favorite character in the movie Star Wars. Little Steven is a name my cousin has outgrown. He is big and beefy in a way that, in our family, has no precedent. His skin is freckled. On that day, his short blond hair was combed forward into a Caesar. He was waiting at his desk, smiling. If the rift between our families is ever healed, it will be because of Little Steven, who does not know or care to know all the facts. He is untroubled by the past.

Marvin introduced us as if we were strangers. He said, "This is my son, Steven Eisenstadt."

The three of us continued through the factory. Marvin showed me the first machine Ben bought more than fifty years ago, the tea bagger he converted into the original sugar packer. It was as stately as a Chinese junk. It's still in operation, used for runs too small for the new machines, which cannot turn out less than twenty thousand packets at a clip. It was on this machine that Ben made the special Sweet'N Low packets for my sister's bat mitzvah: a pink pack with a drawing of a triple-scoop ice cream cone over the words THE COHENS.

In a room filled with boxes, we saw a man asleep in a chair, legs out, cap over his eyes. Little Steven wanted to take a picture of the man with the camera in his cell phone; he'd probably bought the phone for just such occasions. Marvin said, "Let's not embarrass the man." And we crept out.

In the stairwell, Steven's phone rang. He answered it, looked at me, then spoke quickly in a low voice. I heard him say, "Don't worry. It's fine. It's not going down like that."

Handing the phone to Marvin, he said, "It's Jeff."

Steven and I talked, but I kept an eye on my uncle. He was saying, "No, no. It's fine. He's not asking about that. What should I do? No, you tell me! Fine!"

He gave the phone back to Little Steven and said to me, "Come on, let's hurry. I don't have all day."

We went into the parking lot and got into Little Steven's car and drove across the street into the Navy Yard. In 1966, the federal government closed the yard and sold it for twenty-four million dollars to the City of New York, which has since leased it out to industry. There is a jewelry manufacturer and a sign engraver and a printer, but Cumberland is among the biggest tenants. We drove in and out of warehouses, the water at the end of each street, the towers of Manhattan beyond. We parked and walked through the Cumberland buildings. In one, we saw the ghostly rails of a vanished train. In another, we saw giant hooks, relics of the golden age of shipbuilding now deputized in America's never-ending war on fat. One machine seemed to replicate the workings of an angry God: Boxes packed with Sweet'N Low raced across a scale; if a box was even one ounce too light, a mechanical arm did a Heil Hitler, throwing it with great force off the belt and into the ash heap of history.

We got back in the car and drove around—past the ruins of barracks and weed-choked parade grounds; uphill to the Victorian mansion where the commandant of the Yard once lived, with the harbor and the harbor islands stretching below; through the streets of Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood once filled with the Irish immigrants who worked in the Yard, but now a windy ruin, like a ghost town in the West, with creaky storefronts and vacant houses shadowed by a buzzing power plant; then back into the Yard, through the vast construction site where part of this landscape was being turned into a film studio.

We parked near the water and looked back at the buildings above the harbor. We could see the tops of tenements and church steeples. The bridges were at our back. The river was broad and dark. There were tugs and ferries on the water. Down the shore were converted factories and abandoned machine shops. Brooklyn had once been the largest sugar producer in the world, with the biggest refineries on the East River. The last of these, Domino Sugar, shut its doors in 2004. And looking at this, Isuddenly realized that Cumberland Packing, and Grandpa Ben, and Grandma Betty, and Uncle Marvin, and my parents, and my aunt, and the sugar packet, and Sweet'N Low, all of it, is really the story of Brooklyn. The money and the product and the people all come from Brooklyn, but it's more than that. It's the longing of the borough, the collective energy of the millions of immigrants who flooded Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century. The diet craze that turned Sweet'N Low into a household name is a concrete manifestation of this longing. Diet cola, the bathroom scale,3 Sweet'N Low—it all comes from Brooklyn, the cradle of a new culture, the culture of the body, with its quest for complete freedom: freedom from histoy, freedom from exclusion, freedom from fat, freedom from the bad bodies of our ancestors. It's the longing that created the fortune and destroyed the family.

SWEET AND LOW. Copyright @ 2006 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critiral articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Sweet and Low are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book.We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Sweet and Low.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2013

    I am reading and quite enjoying this book.  While I can live wit

    I am reading and quite enjoying this book.  While I can live with the fact that it is more than a bit overwrought (presumably for effect) in the narrative), the editing in the Nook version is atrocious. Misspellings, missing words, errors in punctuation combine to distract and detract from what otherwise would be a riveting story.  It is disappointing, to say the least. Still and all, I intend to continue on with the story, unless and until the copy editing makes it impossible to do so.  

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  • Posted December 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Please Don't Miss This One!

    Rich Cohen may have been part of the "issue" excluded from the Sweet and Low family fortune, but he is rich beyond dollars and cents because he possesses a beyond genius writing ability. How I settle in to his masterful handling of images of scenery, situations, and people. It's dipping into butter added movie popcorn and being carried along into the story playing out on the screen. He is a beautiful writer with a beautiful soul. Keep them coming, Mr. Rich Cohen, and I will keep reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2007

    An American Family

    This book is about so much, sugar and Brooklyn, and legacy and invention. But, and here's what I loved, you peel all that back and what you have is the great human drama of a family growing up and growing apart. If you do not recognize your own family in these pages, you do not have your eyes open. Or you come from Leave it To Beaver land. In the end, you come away with a new sense of your family, and a new appreciation for the people in your life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2006

    family business dynamics...

    Are you interested in how family dynamics effect business? How family business effects families? How individual lives become infected with the family business dynamics? Rich Cohen has written a stunning account of his family¿s quite well known business, the Cumberland Packing Company which makes Sweet n Low, Sugar in the Raw, NuSalts and Butter Buds. Rich is a grand storyteller and this is the story of his family. It¿s a colorful family that Rich traces from the Patriarch¿s childhood through his death. Rich paints a picture of each person¿s peculiarities as seen from various family members yet stays focused on the life of the business and sad life of how various family conflicts were managed and tore them apart. The author¿s mother was excluded from inheriting her share of the business or any family assets. How could this happen? How could a family with hundreds of millions in assets decide not to give one nickel to one of the upstanding and successful children? This is where Rich begins the story and as he writes in the end of the introduction ¿To be disinherited is to be set free.¿ (p. xii) Through reading this manuscript, you will find yourself swept into the culture of this immigrant roots of the patriarch¿s family who was born in New York in 1906. You will learn the character of the family members and be taken through the critical decisions both in the business and the family up to the present day. Perhaps what¿s most interesting is the author¿s description of family dynamics. For example he writes ¿Betty (the wife of the patriarch) can marry well, support her mother and father, fill the world with children, and it¿s still not enough.¿ He explains that as a child no matter what Betty in her family, it was not enough to raise the depression of the family circumstances and how this may have impacted her character. Shortly after Marvin, the oldest son began working in the factory, he was given half the shares of the company. But of course there are two kinds of stock (Class A ¿ voting stock which is where the control and power is and Class B ¿ non-voting or common stock). Of course Marvin was given non-voting stock that way Ben (the patriarch) could give without giving. ¿This distribution mimics the dynamics of the family. Map the stock and you map the love.¿ (p. 78). Was this related to what happened in 1993 where Marvin was arrested and charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy? As a student and coach of family businesses for now close to twenty years. I can only say Halleluyah for an absolutely illuminating story of how families sometimes interact in business and how us professionals can help save or be a bridge for a healthy family and business.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2006

    I Love This Book

    I love this book. It is about the American dream, crazy relatives, lost fortunes, getting what you wish for, and the birth and death of familes. It is about everything. With wild asides and tremendous flashes of humor. I laughed (and cried) the whole way through. It's a perfect Christmas gift!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2006

    Sweet and Miserable?

    This is, unfortunately, a great story of several tragedies - the disintegration of a family and the degrading of a family business. Cohen does not seem to write with rancor, which would have been completely understandable under his circumstances. The treatment of his mother (and Cohen's siblings) by her selfish, loveless mother and obsessive, nasty father - to say nothing of her crackpot sister and mealy-mouthed brother, was atrocious. That mealy-mouthed brother's stewardship of what had been a great family business was equally as atrocious. Nasty people, great story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2006

    Lively biography of a family and a company

    This very unusual, literary corporate biography is written from a unique vantage point: Author Rich Cohen¿s family members are the protagonists. The corporate owners and inventors of Sweet¿N Low are his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. The other driving force here is the story itself, a thick syrup of invention, feuding, a loving family, criminal graft, federal investigation, Brooklyn, America¿s obsession with dieting and an immigrant saga. Since this is also the history of Cohen¿s relatives, he has unique insights into the motivations, emotions and feelings behind the corporate decisions that shaped how a fortune was made, disputed and distributed. The story, which flows loosely between time periods and subjects, is an excellent corporate biography, particularly when it covers the dangers of running a family business. The story has all the cinematic elements of a dark comedy. We recommend it to business and recreational readers for its interesting journalistic storytelling, and its insightful presentation of the family and corporate dynamics hidden inside that familiar little pink packet.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2006

    SWEET AND BITTER

    Rich Cohen is a dramatic storyteller who has written a book that is hard to put down. Ostensibly the story of immigrants in quest of the American dream, the health and diet crazes, the Boro of Brooklyn and how and why businesses fail, at it's core this is the story of the oddball family who came up with SWEET AND LOW and became very rich. Fortunately, the author, a former insider (referred to as an 'issue') was disenherited and set free, so we are able to get the real scoop. It's one hell of a story, well researched, immensely absorbing, rife with bizarre characters and above all, hilarious. WOW!

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    HOW SWEET IS REVENGE?

    They say revenge is sweet. How about revenge is 'Sweet and Low,' a not very flattering account of family and fortune? Author Rich Cohen evidently had get-even in mind as he makes it plain that he doesn't much care for members of his family and he certainly didn't like being disinherited. Nonetheless, scandal and vitriol often add spice to the listen and this is the case with Cohen's narrative. His grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, began it all when he opened a diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Ever on the lookout for an opportunity, he saw the wisdom of putting sugar into little packets rather than having it sit in clogged glass table dispensers. As the tale goes, he pitched his brainstorm to a sugar company that claimed it as their own. Angry but undaunted Eisenstadt then came up with the idea for Sweet `N Low, which was offered initially as an aid for diabetics but soon swiped by diet crazed Americans. The family was in high cotton.......until studies linked saccharin to cancer. As they say, there goes the business. Or, as Cohen would say, 'Fourteen rats get cancer and nothing will ever be the same.' Once corruption was discovered within the company court battles ensued, Cohen's mother's side lost, and their names were whited out in wills. Cohen may be bitter but he's also a dandy writer ('Lake Effect' and 'Tough Jews'). His descriptions of family from the kind of woman 'who wanted you to think she never went to the bathroom' to Uncle Marvin who said to call him Uncle Marvelous are hilarious. The highs and lows of Sweet `N Low isn't exactly The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire but it is an interesting and often smile provoking listen. - Gail Cooke

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2006

    A great memoir...

    The only people who might not enjoy this book are those figured between its pages. It is a gripping story about America, the world of sugar and the striving classes, tamed in the end by chemicals. This IS the story of the twentieth century. A real page turner, and you'll learn something too.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2006

    Poor Little Rich Boy!

    Rich Cohen's book reads like some sort of oedipal nightmare the story of a wealthy author who is out to destroy his family after his grandmother leaves him out of his will. Mr. Cohen feels that he and his mother are entitled to money that they didn't work for. A complete and total waste of time. Recomended for other children of privledge who feel they are entitled to money simply for being born.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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