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Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen

Sweet and Low: A Family Story

by Rich Cohen

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What drama, what intrigue, what pathology! I always say that someone needs to tap my family for disertation material, but after reading this book I realize we are practically the Brady clan. The interpersonal drama is fascinating and sad and funny, but it is really only the tip of the iceberg. This book is a wonderful historical document of a certain kind of immigrant experience. It is also a blast to read. After finishing I immediately ordered another Cohen book, "Tough Jews." I can't wait to learn about the other side of this man's family. ( )
  Narshkite | Mar 10, 2014 |
I wrote this review in May of 2007 for a readers' advisory project. For the sake of the project, I had to keep my official comments uniformly positive.

What I said (in May, 2007):

Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. The story of the dysfunctional family behind the Sweet-N-Low sugar substitute empire, as told by a disinherited member of the clan. Clever writing, colorful characters, and a broad perspective on the impact of artificial sweeteners on American culture make this family saga worth reading.

What I really thought (in May, 2007):

This book kept me reading, with is always a good thing. However, it was not without its flaws. The author is writing about his own family, but since he grew up not in Brooklyn but in Glencoe, IL, there's a lot he doesn't know. For example, Cohen doesn't know his "Uncle Marvelous's" level of involvement in the embezzlement that almost brought down the company. Cohen (who is also the author of a book called Tough Jews, about Jewish gangsters), would like to come across as a street-smart guy, but that's hard to do when you're from the ultra-wealthy North Shore area of suburban Chicago.

Cohen does offers some interesting insights into the the impact of artificial sweeteners (and "the dieting craze in America") on American culture. But, if anything, the perspective is a little too broad. His digressions on dieting, organized crime, and immigrant Jewish culture, and the proper running of a family business, go on a little too long. There's too much stuffed into the book, and way, way too many footnotes and similes, many of them irrelevant.

What I think now (Dec., 2013):

Cohen has some interesting things to say about the way families work.On page 7, he has the following exchange with his uncle Marvin:

[Uncle Marvin] said, "This is not easy for me. You children were always a big part of us. And yet it's not so unusual either, this kind of split in the family."

[Rich Cohen] said, "I guess it's why so few people know their second cousins."

Toward the end of the book, Cohen writes, "So this is how it ends, how cousins grow apart, this is how the members if the family have children and you have children and the children grow up as strangers, who have children, until any connection is lost. So this is how the planet is populated. This is how Brooklyn continues". (p. 262).

These observations have stayed with me all these years, perhaps because I've seen family splits ("few people know[ing] their second cousins") happen more than once. ( )
  akblanchard | Dec 10, 2013 |
This entertaining book is the story of Cohen’s extended family, which founded the Sweet and Low business; Cohen also delves into the history of Brooklyn, sugar, dieting, and related topics, but very casually. Basically this is the story of a family that grew rich off of the idea of packaging sugar, and then sugar substitute, to replace sugar bowls and canisters that seemed unsanitary. The factory got caught up in a tax evasion/embezzlement/Mafia-related scandal, surviving weakened but still going, and Cohen’s branch of the family was disinherited, for reasons that Cohen can only ultimately gesture at, but the pleasure is in the telling. ( )
  rivkat | May 8, 2011 |
This book was one of the first books added to my wishlist when I first joined LibraryThing. Unfortunately, I do not know how I found it and/or who recommended it, but I’ve always been on the lookout for a copy of it. When I finally came across a first edition, I snatched it up and couldn’t wait to tackle it. Boy was I disappointed.

First, the dust jacket descriptions and comic book style art puts the title in a far more lighthearted framework than it actually is. Although well written with some areas of humor and outright guffaw inducing one liners, the overarching narrative is a very serious, and debilitatingly detailed, outline of the birth, growth and bumpy roads of both Sweet ‘N Low (the pink packeted artificial sweetener) and the family who built it. Upon finishing it, I felt somewhat deceived (even my 11 year old daughter looked at the cover and said it looked like a fun read. Moral: Don’t judge a book by its cover) and definitely disappointed.

If it had just been a memoir of the family, the company and the resulting disinheritance of one line of it (the author’s line), I think it would have had great potential. But admittedly, the corporate story wouldn’t be complete without an understanding of its highs and lows. Unfortunately, so much time and effort was spent detailing the “scandal” with thorough use of quotes, dialogues and analysis from court documents that the real story gets lost. Maybe the author’s point was to create this sluggish section in order to undermine any sympathy the reader may have been developing for the key players – it wasn’t until after this played out that his family was disinherited (and don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler – it’s one of the comic book frames on the dust jacket). But by the end, I held no sympathy for any of the players – including the ones who had been disinherited. ( )
  pbadeer | Oct 8, 2010 |
Rich Cohens' unlikely history of the worlds most popular sugar substitute unfolds like a greek tragedy. What makes it particularly fascinating is the authors personal family connection to this poignant story. It will leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth...but in a good way...if that is possible. ( )
  Loud_Librarian | Jul 17, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374272298, Hardcover)

Sweet and Low by Richard Cohen bills itself as "the unauthorized true story of one Brooklyn family." And what a family. Cohen, the disinherited grandson of the artificial sweetener Sweet 'n' Low's inventor, combines two parts Horatio Alger-memoir, one part cultural commentary and three parts personal criticism into a fascinating snapshot of American life, immigrant experience and a broad sermon on the perils of fortune. Cohen's maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, a mid-grade inventor and Brooklyn restaurateur concocts the idea of selling sugar in individual packets--a revolutionary concept in the age of crusty, unsanitary sugar dispensers. His idea stolen by the big sugar companies, Cohen squeaks out a post-war living selling his packets in their shadow until he and his son, Marvin, invent the formula for the saccharine sweetener and catch the first big wave of the American diet craze. Those little pink packets create a vast fortune soon tarnished by interfamily squabbles, Mafia influence, FDA edicts and, mostly, the baser aspects of human nature--greed, jealousy and pride. Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, among other publications, weaves a compelling and often biting narrative about his mother's family. Using those pink packets as metaphor, he paints a dystopic portrait of the American Dream, that, in his family's case, was as devoid of nourishment as any artificial sweetener.--Jeremy Pugh

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:13 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The bittersweet story of an American family and its patriarch, a short-order cook named Ben Eisenstadt who, in the years after World War II, invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low, converting his Brooklyn cafeteria into a factory and amassing the great fortune that would destroy his family. A strange comic farce of machinations and double dealings, it is also the story of immigrants, sugar, saccharine, obesity, and the health and diet craze, played out across countries and generations but also within the life of a single family, as the fortune and the factory passed from generation to generation. The author, Rich Cohen, a grandson (disinherited, and thus set free, along with his mother and siblings), has sought the truth of this rancorous, colorful history, mining thousands of pages of court documents and conducting interviews with members of his extended family.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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