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The bitter truth

Sweet and Low A Family Story Rich Cohen Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 274 pp., $25

April 09, 2006|Melvin Bukiet | Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies, which includes the forthcoming "Scribblers on the Roof." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

IF English poet William Blake famously saw "the world in a grain of sand," perhaps American journalist Rich Cohen sees America in a granule of sugar, or a chemical substitute. Cohen has every reason to embrace this perspective, since his family's history is more intrinsically bound up with these magical substances that tantalize human taste buds than any other in the country.

"Sweet and Low," Cohen's alternately delicious and sour group memoir, tracks his ancestors back to their origins in Eastern Europe, but the story effectively begins in this country with his maternal grandparents, Ben and Bessie Eisenstadt. Ben attended law school, yet ended up working in Bessie's father's small deli across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Among his daily tasks was cleaning the little metal flaps of the sugar containers, which would inevitably clot with dampness and use. One day in 1945, Bessie had a flash of genius. Why not package sugar in individual, teaspoon-sized envelopes? She might as well have been Walt Disney doodling a mouse on a napkin or Bill Gates noodling with computer code. From such "eureka" moments, fortunes are born.

Ben tinkered with a tea-bagging machine, turned the family deli into a factory and became a manufacturer. The business was moderately successful, then moved into the big leagues with postwar prosperity and attendant health-consciousness. Seeking an alternative to the sugar that helped make America fat, Ben and his son Marvin, Cohen's uncle, played with calorie-less but bitter saccharine until they came up with the perfect leavening agent (cream of tartar) to make the stuff palatable. They called it Sweet'N Low, designed a musical logo on a blushing pink package, and the rest is history -- also demography, finance, politics, corruption.

When exploring his family's past, there is no moment too small for Cohen to parse. He describes, for instance, how Uncle Marvin euchred his little sister (Ellen, Cohen's mom) out of quarters on the Coney Island Boardwalk. And when delineating the history of sugar, there is no assertion too large:

"Sugar," he proclaims, "fueled the growth of the modern city, the modern workforce, and the modern nation. It powered the slave trade and made possible the rise of the mercantile class that overthrew the kings. It fueled the revolutions that gave birth to modern democracies and modern wars."

Besides skipping back and forth between the intimacy of the Eisenstadt household and the chronicle of sugar through the ages, Cohen also tells an epic saga of Jewish acculturation and success in the United States. Yet the Eisenstadts' tale is not a pretty one, because the dramatis personae are wrecks. "Marvelous" Uncle Marvin is inadequate to the business he takes over from Ben; feckless Uncle Ira becomes a purse-toting, cat-raising eccentric; and weird Aunt Gladys dominates the family universe from a bedroom in Flatbush that she refuses to leave -- literally -- for decades.

All these characters are portrayed with elegantly phrased detail, along with Cohen's insightful eye for the larger picture. "Sweet and Low" might as well be a Balzacian 19th century novel complete with a crisis, a contested will and a tragic resolution.

This House of Sweetness, known as the Cumberland Packing Corp., nearly tumbles when an indictment accuses the company's principals of tax fraud and mob connections. Cohen can never be certain what role Marvin plays here, dupe or mastermind, but it does seem clear that, obsessed with legal woes that led to a plea bargain, Marvin dropped the ball. This allowed other companies to poach his turf with products like Equal and Splenda, now the market leader in an industry based on a product "valued not for being nutritional but for having no nutritional value."

Throughout "Sweet and Low," Cohen evinces a ferocity toward the family business. He compares saccharine to "crack cocaine or anthrax" and insists that the original sugar trade attracted "the dregs of the dregs." Why such animosity when "[t]he business is the family, and the blood of the family is money?" Turns out that something is not merely quirky but very wrong in the fairyland created by the white fairy dust. Perhaps it's in the evil siblings who traduce Grandpa Ben. Perhaps it's in the jaundiced soul of Bessie, for whom "love is finite." Or perhaps it's the nature of families to eat themselves, especially when they're not hungry. This story culminates in the brutal line from Bessie's testament: "I hereby record that I have made no provision under this WILL for my daughter ELLEN and any of ELLEN'S issue for reasons I deem sufficient."

As Ellen's icily defined "issue," Cohen bravely claims that "[t]o be disinherited is to be set free," but a grim resentment emerges between the lines. I have no doubt that the Eisenstadt half of the family is as unsavory as he makes it out to be and that Cohen's Talmudic parsing of court records and a lifetime's worth of informed speculation is scrupulous; still, there's a vast blank space on the other side of the ledger.

When Ellen leaves the Garden of Brooklyn for Illinois, where Cohen is born, something seems to break. Words like "estrangement" appear, yet we are never given a satisfactory explanation for the rift. Would the Eisenstadts have run their deli together and lived happily ever after if not for "the ... battle over the gold?" Who knows? In the meantime, "Sweet and Low" is never less than fascinating reading, both for what it says and what it doesn't. Hell hath no fury like a writer deprived. *

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