Sweet and Lowdown

Rich Cohen’s new book reveals his family’s bitter Brooklyn legacy.

sweet and lowSitting just east of the Williamsburg Bridge, the Domino Sugar refinery once held the dubious record of being the largest in the country. But in 2004, citing falling demands, the refinery shut its doors. The structure’s still there, but the machinery is silent, the workers long gone.

In the Navy Yard, down the road from the Domino refinery, stands the headquarters of the Cumberland Packing Corporation. Inside this factory machines spew flurries of bright pink packets, thousands every day. The last page of Brooklyn’s cane sugar story has been written, but the tale of Sweet‘N Low, that bastion of artificial sweeteners, continues to unfold. Guess what, Brooklyn—it all began here.

Rich Cohen’s new book, Sweet and Low (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), reveals the bitter plot behind those ubiquitous pink packets. The entertaining, often hilarious, and occasionally poignant book is a riotous journey through the history of America’s troubled relationship with its sweet tooth. Bouncing from Haiti to Britain to Paris, Cohen speeds through empires, kings, wars and revolts with dizzying effects. Take equal parts desire and greed, add a pinch of self-fulfilled prophecies, a dash of disinheritance, and a healthy spoonful of Old World Jewish stoicism, and you’ve got the legacy of one of the greatest mass-marketed deceptions ever deployed: Sweet’N Low. You’ve also, Cohen posits, got of the legacy of this place.

“The story of sugar,” he writes, “is the story of the Americas,” whereas Sweet’N Low—along with the author’s parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts—“all of it, is really the story of Brooklyn.”

From the beginning, the story of Sweet’N Low is one of deception and disappointment. The sugar substitute saccharine was discovered in one of those ridiculous scientific a-ha moments of equal parts serendipity and tragedy: in 1882, a chemist researching the breakdown of sulfuric acids for another, much more well-known chemist, hit the jackpot, promptly patented his invention, and slapped his name on it. “Fahlberg’s saccharin” became a sweeping sensation. The formula broke sugar’s hold on the world’s apparently insatiable sweet tooth and laid the groundwork for Sweet’N Low, which would arrive almost a century later. In 1957, Cohen’s grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, and his son (Cohen’s Uncle Marvin) combined saccharin, dextrose and cream of tartar, and America was ready. Nearly overnight, Sweet‘N Low took the nation by storm, and by 2004 sale of sugar substitutes in the United States had soared to approximately $350 million.

Cohen’s family history has all the makings of a Dickensian novel, pounds of exploitable material to sweeten his tale—a dizzying array of idiosyncratic characters, a social context rich for exploitation, griev- ances held through decades. He serves up all these intimate details, including bits most members would prefer to leave untold: Grandma Betty, who cuts Cohen’s mother, Ellen, out of the will. Uncle Marvin, who, despite the egregious acts of income-tax evasion that ultimately drag the family name through the mud, ends up financially just fine, thank you. Aunt Gladys, the semi-delusional agoraphobic who sends wounded missives from the confines of her room after the publication of Cohen’s first book, Tough Jews. And then there’s Grandpa Ben, the inventor himself, who receives perhaps the kindest treatment in Cohen’s deliberate hands. Of Ben in the weeks following the tax-evasion scandal, Cohen writes: “He radiates sadness and confusion, the melancholy of the boy who has spent a summer day building a sand castle only to see the battlements collapse with the first wave of the new tide.”

It comes as no surprise when Grandpa Ben’s empire—built on tiny moments of genius tempered by loss, like his invention of individual sugar packets and the patent he naively neglected to buy for said packets—is revealed to be rotting from within like the teeth of a candy lover, the slow decay of greed and desire weakening the structure of a family business bit by bit. What does come as a surprise is Cohen’s poignant sense of loss at this destruction. Throughout his book, Cohen examines empires: America, Brooklyn, Jewish self-identity, the concept of family itself. He deftly avoids the sour note of resentment that might have sounded through his pages. Though the question of his disinheritance resurfaces throughout the book, his greater sadness results from the damage that ensues. The successes and scandals of the Sweet’N Low empire cause a rift to snake through the nucleus of his family, leaving it broken—unmendable, it would seem, all the characters and their stories never to meet again.

In this book, though, they meet one last time. Towards the end, Cohen recounts attending a party at his cousin’s house in Park Slope. “So this is how it ends,” he writes. “This is how the cousins grow apart, this is how the members of the family have children and you have chil- dren 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.”

But this book finds those connections again. Through his writing, the planet is populated with stories of the American dream, of the Jewish immigrant, of a grandson who feels the legacy of those dreams and their loss resounding through him.

And we taste them in the foods that re-tell these stories every day. And that is how Brooklyn continues.

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