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.