Sweet and Low: A Fam­i­ly Story

  • Review
By – May 21, 2012

A fam­i­ly chron­i­cle is rarely fas­ci­nat­ing, even to some­one inside the group. In the hands of Rich Cohen, how­ev­er, it can be an engross­ing tale of intrigue, pop­u­lat­ed by a rich array of idio­syn­crat­ic characters. 

Sweet and Low: A Fam­i­ly Sto­ry, is Cohen’s attempt to dis­cov­er why his moth­er was dis­in­her­it­ed and his branch of the fam­i­ly cut off from a share of the for­tune amassed by his grand­fa­ther, Ben Eisen­stadt. Founder of the Cum­ber­land Pack­ing Com­pa­ny, devel­op­er of Sweet’N Low, Grand­pa Ben cre­at­ed sub­stan­tial wealth, which ulti­mate­ly split his fam­i­ly apart. As is often the case with a fam­i­ly firm, Cohen observes, it is the patriarch’s vision and busi­ness acu­men which paves the way for the son who lays in stores of antibi­otics but always for the wrong dis­ease,” and then for the grand­son who either wants to enjoy his wealth or else just wants to out­per­form Pop.” And this is why fam­i­ly firms tend to last no more than three gen­er­a­tions,” he adds. 

Cohen, a mas­ter­ful reporter, avoids sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty or anger. He char­ac­ter­izes his rel­a­tives telling­ly: there are Uncle Mar­vin (called Uncle Mar­velous”), who joined Grand­pa Ben in devel­op­ing the idea for Sweet N Low, which arrived as a sug­ar sub­sti­tute at an ide­al time, when there arose an epi­dem­ic not only of fat peo­ple, but of peo­ple who think they are fat”; Aunt Gladys, who took to her room and remained phys­i­cal­ly con­fined for decades, although her tongue is thou­sands of miles of fiber-optic cable”; Grand­ma Bet­ty, described as Lady Mac­beth­stein, plot­ting and planning…among the Jew­ish pro­le­tari­at”; and many others. 

Cohen reach­es beyond the fam­i­ly saga for mate­r­i­al, includ­ing exten­sive infor­ma­tion on top­ics such as the his­to­ry of sug­ar as a nutri­tion­al treat, a source of wealth, a moti­va­tion for slav­ery. For exam­ple, did you know why the first sug­ar plan­ta­tions were built by Mus­lims? But this is part of what makes Sweet’N Low so absorb­ing. The more Cohen dis­cov­ers, the more he wants to share with the read­er, and his excite­ment is infectious. 

Rather than be a pass­ing observ­er, Cohen invites the read­er to be his accom­plice. Hav­ing been dis­in­her­it­ed, he is lib­er­at­ed to say what­ev­er he thinks, and lis­ten­ing to his com­men­tary makes the read­er a co-con­spir­a­tor as a seek­er of amusement. 

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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