maarmie's musings

Monday, May 15, 2006

Book: Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen reads like both a history book and a narrative borne out of a mild roiling contempt that outlines the greed, competition, bitterness, anger, deceit and hard work introduced into the world by Cohen's family and the dysfunctions that raising children under the old-fashioned mantras that include "love is conditional" and "children are property" breeds.

This book, a surprisingly informative page-turner considering its subject matter, would not have been written but for Cohen's disinheritance from the family fortune. Cohen alone was not disinherited. His mother and her "issue" (Cohen and two siblings) were. Still, that left him free to write a book his family might not have wanted written without fearing repercussions or feeling much guilt. Perhaps it's because Cohen is a journalist, but he tended to stick to the facts and to use direct quotes to outline the story of his family and largely shied away from interjecting his own opinion which lends a heapin' helpin' of credibility to the tale.

The history of the sugar substitute that comes in an innocent-looking pink packet could not be told, it seems, absent the telling of the history of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Jews in New York, Cohen's parents, his parents' parents, his parents' parents' parents, dieting, diet foods, health clubs, the Food and Drug Administration, sugar, artificial sweeteners and the dynamics that made and make his family what it is.

The story unfolds in New York City in the days when squirrels were kept on leashes as pets and Manhattan was filled with deer, fox, black bears, wolves, weasels, ducks, geese, bobcats, mountain lions, wild turkey and mink. Explorers came, then trappers and traders, and, finally, merchants who set up shop, sent for their families and thrived in the spot that has remained economically sustainable ever since, in part, because of the finest port around.

The way he tells it, Cohen's male family members helped build the city one steel girder at a time and made their home in Brooklyn, the borough Dutch settlers claimed in 1634. Life for his family back then, he wrote, began and ended in Brooklyn, a place they considered the end of the world just as it was the end of the subway line.

Cohen's maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, may have eventually invented Sweet'N Low, but he grew up as faceless as an orphan. Ben's father died when Ben was a child, and his mother didn't make enough to care for three kids. Ben was sent to live with uncles on ratty couches and floors in one apartment or another and almost didn't graduate from high school over some kind of credit mishap. Lacking a car or money for train fare, Ben walked to Albany from Brooklyn, so the story goes, to set the record straight and used his degree to get into law school. He graduated valedictorian of his class and hung the sign for his law office on Broadway just in time for the Great Depression to take away his dreams.

A lack of clients led Ben to start a diner (and to become the only behind-the-counter worker to dispense law advice) which crumbled years later and morphed into a tea bagging company which morphed into a packaging company for sugar which morphed, finally, into a packaging company for Eisenstadt's own product, Sweet'N Low. The company nearly folded several times because of mismanagement and scandal - but endures.

Unfortunately for Rich's mother, Ellen, Ben was married to a bitter shrew who, it appears, enjoyed spreading the gloom, fucking people over and taking names and went to the grave reviled by more than one family member. Because Ellen, one of three children born to Ben and the evil one, never worked in the family business and was the one to suggest the hospital where Ben eventually died, she and her spawn were left emptyhanded when her mommy dearest died, her will doing the damage with one simple sentence:

"I hereby record that I have made no provision under this will for my daughter Ellen and any of Ellen's issue for reasons I deem sufficient."

Ellen didn't contest the will when her father died, but started contesting when her mother passed. She didn't go through with it, though, and, instead, Ellen and her "issue" fell away from the rest of the family. Typical crappy tale.

A few interesting things I learned about dieting:

1. The history of dieting can be traced back to Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who invented the Graham cracker. His followers weighed their meals and were called Grahamites. Graham preached against gluttony in the 1820s when sugar consumption was on the rise.

2. Modern diet books began appearing in the 1890s.

3. The first modern health club - called a "reducing salon" - opened in 1914 in Chicago.

4. Calories became a unit of measurement in 1906 just after World War II.

5. The first diet drink was produced in 1952 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by Hyman Kirsch, a Russian immigrant. First came Kirsch's no-cal ginger ale followed by no-cal orange and lime. Though the drinks were marketed to diabetics, those who were diet conscious bought the drinks by the case.

6. Sweet'N Low rode this diet-crazed wave and was the leader of substitute sweeteners for decades but now falls in line in third place behind Equal and Splenda.

The most important things I learned from the book:

1. A successful business hinges on hard work, timing, ingenuity and the right connections.

2. It's impossible to ever get along with some people - even and especially if they are members of your family.

3. Some people want to make other people's lives miserable just because they are unhappy.

4. Never be unconditionally trusting.

5. If you dine with cannibals, you'll get eaten.

6. "To be disinherited is to be set free."

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