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Sweet and Low

A Family Story

Rich Cohen


Sweet and Low Download image

ISBN10: 0312426011
ISBN13: 9780312426019

Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
A Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year
A Kansas City Star Noteworthy Book of the Year
A Top Ten Best Books of the Year

Sweet and Low is the bittersweet, hilarious story of Ben Eisenstadt, who invented sugar packets and Sweet'N Low, and amassed the great fortune that would later destroy his family. It is a story of immigrants, Jewish gangsters, and Brooklyn; of sugar, saccharine, obesity, and diet crazes; of jealousy, betrayal, and ambition. Disinherited along with his mother and siblings, Rich Cohen has written a rancorous, colorful history of his extraordinary family and their pursuit of the American Dream.


Praise for Sweet and Low

"A rollicking, utterly compelling family saga that is part detective story, part morality tale, part tragedy and part farce. It is a story peopled with eccentrics and naïfs and scoundrels, and a story recounted with uncommon acuity and wit . . . Mr. Cohen . . . writes about his family with a mixture of affection, outrage and bafflement, startled and often in awe at the strangeness of his relatives and the bizarre trajectory of their lives . . . He has not settled for writing a simple, straight-ahead memoir, however. Instead, he's intercut the story with tart and highly entertaining asides about everything from the history of Brooklyn to the history of the sugar business, from the legacy of the immigrant experience to the big business of diets and weight loss . . . [Cohen has] managed to turn his family's rancorous history into a gripping memoir: a small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling—and often hilarious—parable about the pursuit and costs of the American Dream."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Do not disinherit a man who makes his living with a pen. He may exact revenge by splashing the family's boils and foibles in black-and-white on the pages of a spectacularly entertaining book. That is the misfortune of the family of the late Benjamin Eisenstadt, self-made scion behind those ubiquitous pink packages of fake sugar piled in bowls on restaurant tabletops the world over. But it's a riotous reading experience for the rest of us, who get to enjoy Rich Cohen's roiling, boisterous, hysterical and weirdly scholarly remembrance of his messy, badly behaved Jewish clan in Sweet and Low."—Michael Ollove, The Baltimore Sun

"How decadent . . . to indulge in Rich Cohen's rollicking account of his family and the business it built, a book that aims mostly to settle old scores, air dirty laundry and answer decades of petty insults from relatives . . . He paints vividly, and not flatteringly . . . [Cohen] has a terrific eye for detail, the little things that affix people and places in our memories, the gestures and miscues that shape family history . . . Reading him savage his family, you sometimes wonder, is he allowed to do this? It's a guilty pleasure—sort of like sugar without the calories."—Kate Zernike, The New York Times Book Review

"A wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch . . . Cohen moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get . . . Is Rich Cohen, the grandson who got squat from the Sweet'N Low millions, taking revenge? No; this book is about his mother, and the way that her family—the whole saccharine-sticky lot of them—were truly and unnaturally awful to her, a woman who makes but brief appearances in the narrative and is never eulogized. A woman who could have survived her vile relatives only through a tremendous inner strength. It is this strength which, subtly, gloriously, Rich Cohen celebrates."—John Barlowe, Washington Post

"The rollicking saga of Grandpa Ben's business, 'taken over and stripmined by hooligans.' The battle over his vast family fortune leads to feuds between siblings, corruption, lawsuits and the ultimate disintegration of the clan. It is Cohen's good fortune to be on the side of the family that was disinherited. Sweet revenge is the energy behind this glorious book."—Andrea Sachs, Time

"Alternately delicious and sour . . . 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 . . . 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."—Melvin Bukiet, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Sweet and Low is a wondrous evocation of an era and character types that won't be seen again."—Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune

"The book is not just about settling scores . . . Mr. Cohen aims higher, writing not only about his family but also about the first Jewish settlers in New York, the history of sugar, the dieting industry, the Food and Drug Administration and city politics, among other things. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, he's made a career of writing books that mix nostalgia, cultural history and memoir. It's a tricky blend, but he manages it with clean, confident prose. He boils down his research into something spare, wistful and edgy . . . Mr. Cohen is an unusually nimble writer, capable of casually broaching grander themes. By balancing his more ambitious material with Eisenstadt family lore, and moving the drama away from the money he'll never see, he makes the story of Sweet'N Low something more than just a pleasant taste that lingers in the mouth."—Emily Bobrow, The New York Observer

"After half a century of testimony from the likes of Philip Roth and about as much in personal experience, I can only imagine how Tolstoy would have begun 'Anna Karenina' had he grown up in Brooklyn when I did: 'Most crazy families are alike,' he might have written. 'But each crazy Jewish family is meshuga in its own way.' Sweet and Low is Rich Cohen's unblinking account of one such family . . . What Moby Dick did for whaling, what The Jungle did for meatpacking, what Mr. Roth's own American Pastoral did for the glove business, Mr. Cohen now endeavors to do for the saccharine trade. The resulting edgy memoir, written from the perspective of a loving son whose mother was inexplicably disinherited, is alternately tender, ferocious, hilarious and tragic. Never has the word 'bittersweet' been applied more accurately to a story . . . As the story of a family enterprise, Sweet and Low is worth any dozen standard business texts. Instead of banal exhortations about leadership and knowledge silos, Mr. Cohen gives us the Brooklyn equivalent of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks—a vivid family saga . . . Ably researched and deftly paced, Sweet and Low is unfailingly entertaining, not least because of Mr. Cohen's razzmatazz style."—The Wall Street Journal

"Do not disinherit a man who makes his living with a pen. He may exact revenge by splashing the family's boils and foibles in black and white on the pages of a spectacularly entertaining book . . . But it's a riotous reading experience for the rest of us, who get to enjoy Rich Cohen's roiling, boisterous, hysterical, and weirdly scholarly remembrance of his messy, badly behaved Jewish clan in Sweet and Low."—The Miami Herald

"The writing is vivid, and the emotions so strong that we can't help but be drawn into the story."—The Dallas Morning News

"If you still need proof that the nuclear family is a weapon of mass destruction, this book is for you."—The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Cohen presents not only an investigation into the sugar-substitute industry but also a multidimensional story on the effects of ambition and wealth on generations of one American family."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Perhaps the greatest triumph of this idiosyncratic book is that those dainty pink packets with the wavy blue writing and the red treble clef will never again look the same."—Newsday

"Sweet and Low's . . . quirky sense of humor make[s] it a fascinating and highly recommended pick."—The Midwest Book Review

"Cohen's writing is crisp, his subject is enthralling and has widespread appeal, and his story interweaves all sorts of intriguing characters . . . His observations are witty and engaging, and he takes readers on a whirlwind spin through a tale replete with political machinations, familial squabbles, conspiracy prosecutions and sheer dumb luck."—Marie Siesseger, The Roanoke Times

"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."—Suzan Sherman, The Forward

"Hooray for Benjamin Eisenstadt, without whom there would be no Sweet 'N Low—and hooray for Rich Cohen, without whom there would be no Sweet and Low! With the command of the best historians and a born-memoirist's knack for the unexpectedly profound, Cohen takes us on a hilarious, utterly engrossing tour of the Jewish-American Century through the improbable story of his family, beginning with grandpa Ben, Brooklyn counterman-cum-millionaire-inventor. It's a story of ambition, corruption, fortunes won and nearly lost, and—above all—how families fall apart."—Jonathan Mahler

"I love this book. Sweet and Low is the amazing story of an industry I knew nothing about—and a product that's on every table—and of the incredible family that somehow created it, written by one of America's best journalists."—Larry King

"Sweet and Low is the history of the sweet tooth and the Machiavellian family that tamed it. I love this book. Rich Cohen is the funniest disinherited man alive."—Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed

"This remarkable book is an exhilarating read. Hilarious, rueful, sparkling and brainy, it bridges the personal and the larger picture with style and panache. I loved every page of it."—Phillip Lopate

"If you're only going to read one history of sugar alternatives / walking tour of Brooklyn and Guyland / rags-to-riches immigrant family tragicomedy this year . . . that's probably one more than most everyone else. But Sweet and Low, which is all of those things and much more, shouldn't be missed. It is the kind of book you want to read aloud to your friends, hoping they might mistakenly think that you're that funny, that knowledgeable, and that brave."—Jonathan Safran Foer

"This story has it all: entrepreneurial spirit and the rise to fame and fortune from meager beginnings, rich New York history going back to the 1600s, Jewish gangsters, a federal raid, and family scandal; there is also the history of sugar, dieting fads, politics, and the debate on carcinogenic food. Fun all the way through."—Booklist

"Disinherited from the family fortune built by his maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, who invented the artificial sweetener Sweet'N Low, Cohen mines a wealth of family history in this funny, angry, digressive memoir. Ben worked as a short-order cook during the Depression and conceived of but failed to patent the sugar packet before he and his son Marvin hit pay dirt in the 1950s with the saccharin formula for Sweet'N Low. Today a distant third to Equal and Splenda, Sweet'N Low is run by Marvin's son Jeff, who took over after Marvin and several other chief officers were charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy in 1993. This story of the family-owned, Brooklyn-based company is, at its heart, a tale of immigrant strife and Cohen's fractious Jewish clan, including his grandmother Betty, for whom 'love is finite,' and his hypochondriac, housebound Aunt Gladys ('a tongue probing a sore'), who connived to eliminate her sister (Cohen's mother) from Betty's will . . . [The] grace of [Cohen's] writing lies in the merciless, comic characterizations of his relatives."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

© Jeremy Medoff

Rich Cohen

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