Sweet And Low
Here is what the apogee of a family feud sounds like: I hereby record that I have made no provision under this will for my daughter Ellen and any of Ellen’s issue. “Her issue?” gulps author Rich Cohen, son of the aforementioned Ellen and disinherited heir to the multi-hundred-million-dollar Sweet’N Low fortune, about that passage of his grandma Betty’s will. “It was like being called discharge, or refuse, or excrement.” Cohen, the author of the Brooklyn, N.Y., gangster memoir Tough Jews could have subtitled this book Pathologically Greedy Jews or Self-Deluded Jews or Bitter, Vengeful, Beyond Psychological Salvage Jews. Thankfully for B’nai B’rith he holds back, but there’s no flinching when it comes to telling the truth about how greed and neurosis blew his doomed family to smithereens.
Cohen’s grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt brainstormed the paper sugar packet after cleaning the rock-candy crud from around the lip of the sugar dispensers at his Brooklyn diner for the umpteenth time. After naively spilling the unpatented beans to sugar conglomerates that gladly stole his idea, Eisenstadt decided to put a compound subject to copyright in little pink packets. It was a zeitgeist-blessed idea and, fueled by the diet craze of the mid-to-late 20th century, the family business mushroomed. The next thing Cohen knew, he was being photographed at his lavish bar mitzvah next to baseball Hall of Famer Bill White. But the catalyst of money made long-simmering family feuds boil over, and by the time the Mafia muscled in on the factory and the feds took notice, the tribe was beyond repair.
Despite the litany of wrongs, this isn’t Bubbie Dearest—a less composed (and equally disinherited) author might have succumbed to the temptation to paint his family as uncomplicated brutes, but Cohen is a tai chi master of a writer, able to wreak devastating effect with the lightest of touches. Sure, he gets his licks in, but what lingers is his sadness over how his clan tore apart like a downed satellite in the airless stratosphere of new money and an unspoken, rueful acknowledgement of how nice it would have been if the good times had kept on coming. It makes perfect sense how Sweet’N Low, as if carrying some of the dysfunction of its creators, can never be mistaken for genuine sugar because of its walloping, bitter aftertaste. Nobody, however, could mistake this sensitive, pointed, and all-around excellent memoir for anything but the real deal.