Benjamin Eisenstadt’s obituary in The New York Times called him “a sweetener of lives,” for he invented not only the individual sugar packet but also the zero-calorie cash cow Sweet’N Low. In his new book, “Sweet and Low: A Family Story” (to be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Eisenstadt’s grandson, Rich Cohen — journalist and author of the acclaimed “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams” (1998) and “Lake Affect” (2002), among others — has delved beneath the surface of this saccharine success story to uncover some bitter truths about his family. Cohen seeks answers to nagging questions: Why was his mother — and, by extension, himself — disinherited from the vast family fortune? Was the company really infiltrated by the mob? Like a detective intent on solving a mystery, Cohen combs court transcripts and newspaper articles for clues. He interviews countless relatives, each of whom has a different story.
Although writing about some of the most personal issues — money, love, family — Cohen has avoided sentimentality and anger while rendering quirky familial temperaments and downright dysfunction with humor. Moreover, he places the story in a larger context — the history of sugar, postwar Brooklyn and dieters in America “grooving to Richard Simmons” — so that by the end of “Sweet and Low” that infamous little pink packet of artificial sweetener seems connected, if not to the mob, then to almost everything else. Cohen recently sat down for a chat about the book with Suzan Sherman at Artie’s Delicatessen on New York City’s Upper West Side.
Suzan Sherman: Does the waitress know you? When I ordered my tea, she asked if I wanted it with Sweet’N Low.
Rich Cohen: She doesn’t know me, but a good waitress pretends to know everybody. And Sweet’N Low is so innocuous — it’s just everywhere.
SS: When you see a packet of Sweet’N Low, what does it make you think of? I’m thinking it must be like a Rorschach inkblot for you.
RC: I start to twitch uncontrollably, I go into grand mal seizures. [Laughter] Actually, I don’t even notice it or connect it to my grandfather unless I really think about it. When I was a kid, I would say, “My grandfather invented that,” and people didn’t believe me, because Sweet’N Low seemed like something that didn’t have an inventor — like a flower or a leaf. I realized a long time ago that if my grandfather invented Sweet’N Low, somebody else’s grandfather invented the ketchup bottle and the mustard bottle. And behind every invention there’s probably some horrible story, some epic saga of America. And when you start to see the world that way, you realize everything is the product of some sort of family feud. I like to think my family’s story is interesting in and of itself, but the book isn’t just about my family; it’s universal. It’s the story of how things get made, and how families grow and fall apart.
SS: Did you always know that “Sweet and Low” would also be about the dieting craze in America, the history of sugar and the story of postwar Brooklyn?
RC: I’d been writing this book in my head for my entire life, and I always thought it would be about my grandfather’s machines and how great they were. I suppose it was going to be a nostalgic, sentimental story. But things changed. There was the corruption scandal in my grandfather’s company, Cumberland Packing. And after he died, my mother was disinherited. The story kept shifting and getting bigger. Cumberland was, and still is, based in Brooklyn, where most of the sugar factories used to be located. The Jewish immigrants flooded Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. The dieting craze began there, too — all the Jews wanted to look like svelte Anglo Saxon people. Brooklyn was a hub for everything, and that’s a big part of the story.
SS: On the back cover there’s a cartoon of you poised over a typewriter, with a bubble coming out of your mouth that says, “To be disinherited is to be set free!” What does that mean, exactly?
RC: Basically it means being released from the family and its usual obligations. It means finding yourself responsible only to yourself. It means to be cast out and thrown back on your own devices. When I look back on what my grandfather left me, I have to say he left me only this story. And I am taking it. It makes me think of that old Kris Kristofferson song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” which includes the verse, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
SS: Has your family read the book?
RC: Everyone in my family has read it. But there are also lot of people who are mentioned in this book who haven’t read it. Like Donald Rumsfeld — I’m sure he hasn’t read it. [In the 1970s Rumsfeld worked for GD Searle, a chemical manufacturer. Searle developed the artificial sweetener aspartame, which is now marketed under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet. Working under President Reagan after leaving Searle, Rumsfeld helped get aspartame its FDA approval.]
SS: I had a question about your mother’s relationship with your grandfather. Your mother was disinherited after she recommended a cardiologist to perform his bypass surgery. He died from complications, and the family — particularly your grandmother and aunt — treated your mother like she’d killed him. But this kind of anger and blame doesn’t emerge out of nowhere; it bubbles beneath the surface for years.
RC: I agree with you — the feelings are much more complicated than that. It goes back to when my mother was a little girl. The feeling my mother got from my grandmother was, there was only a certain amount of love; love was finite, like coal. A lot of those older immigrant Jews really believed that. My mother had a very close relationship with my grandfather, and my grandmother got jealous. I don’t go into that too much in the book. This is a personal book, and yet at the same time it’s not hugely invasive. All I know is, I see the effect it has had on my mother, and I write about it, but a reader has to bring his or her own analysis to it.
SS: It’s such a bizarre twist that men who worked at Cumberland Packing embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and your mother was completely cut off. The plant manager, Mario Menderos [who was charged with conspiracy and tax evasion, and sentenced to a 97-month imprisonment] will be getting out of prison in May — roughly a month after your book is published. In “Sweet and Low” you mention your Uncle Marvin being “a little afraid” about his release. Are you worried about Menderos reading this book?
RC: I’m not worried about it. I didn’t do anything except write what’s already in the court transcripts and what’s been published in the newspapers. I don’t know the depths of his relationship with my uncle, except that this guy was sent to prison for a very long time. I wrote about this story as a reporter, and if you take on the assignment you have to do the job the right way and tell the truth. This is an assignment that I gave myself.