“Everyone in my family tells this story, but everyone starts it in a different way.” That’s how Rich Cohen begins his own story about Sweet’N Low, the artificial sweetener developed by his grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, in 1957. It turns out that the iconic condiment, with its pink packet and 50-year-old musical logo, has a sordid back-story, filled with intrigue, deception and old-fashioned family dysfunction. Sure, any family-owned multimillion-dollar company will have skeletons in its closet and grudge-bearing relatives. But few have someone like Mr. Cohen among the aggrieved: A scorned grandson and lively writer, he dusts off each skeleton with style.
The catalyst for this book, as with so many tales of family woe, is a will. When Benjamin’s wife Betty died in 2001, she left nothing of their fortune to their daughter Ellen—the author’s mom—or her family, for reasons that were less than plain. “So fate has placed me in the ideal storytelling position,” Mr. Cohen writes in his introduction. “The youngest son of the once-favorite daughter. Outside but inside, with just enough of a grudge to sharpen my sensibility.” Cumberland Packing, the family company that owns Sweet’N Low, generated sales of $66.5 million during the 12 months ending in March 2005—a 19 percent share of the artificial-sweetener market, he notes—making it more than a sentimental bummer to be overlooked. From these first few pages, I was hooked.
In Sweet and Low Mr. Cohen writes the story of the business, unraveling decades of knotty family history. He does so against the backdrop of 20th-century Brooklyn, a hotbed of dreamy immigrants and longing. “Manhattan is neon light and champagne and the party that never ends. Brooklyn is where you sleep it off, where the subway terminates, where your grandparents came from.” Ben Eisenstadt set up Cumberland Packing in a former diner on the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Born humbly in New York in 1906, he wandered the city during the Depression; “Like the best Americans, he was free to invent himself.” He saw a market for replacing sugar dispensers, which often gum up and crust over, with individual sugar packs, and he reconfigured a tea-bagging machine to do this. Domino Sugar stole the idea—Ben never applied for a patent—leaving Cumberland to buzz along with only modest success through the 1950’s. And then a pharmaceutical company asked him to devise a sugar substitute that could be packed the same way, “a solution to a problem new in history, the American problem of plenty.” At the time, weight-watchers and diabetics had to settle for something that came as a pill.
Sweet’N Low was named for a J. Barnby hit from 1919 (with words from a Tennyson poem). Cumberland waxed rich as the diet economy flourished (“an epidemic not only of fat people, but of people who think they are fat”). And then the company entered a sleazy phase: Its executives dipped into “the dirty game of politics” to fight off a federal ban on saccharin—a key ingredient—after some rats got bladder tumors from the equivalent of 800 cans of Diet Coke shot directly into their bodies. There was scandal, a raid by the feds, a deal cut with prosecutors. All the while, the family dysfunction calcified, like the onset of rigor mortis.
The book is not just about settling scores. Mr. Cohen does indulge in some digs, particularly at his uncle, Marvin (Marvelous) Eisenstadt, the current owner of Cumberland Packing, who comes across as a chump. But 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, like when he writes about Henry Hudson’s diaries, which capture the explorer’s first impressions of New York: “the quality of the air, the swell of the land, the little ponds and streams, and the breeze that arrives in May and blows all summer.” Mr. Cohen keeps the focus off of himself, knowing there are few things more tediously self-indulgent than a self-justifying memoir.
The story is a product of interviews with surviving family members—or, anyway, those who cooperated, like his odd Aunt Gladys, who hadn’t been outside her childhood home in almost 30 years—and countless patent applications, newspaper articles, court reports and history books, many of which Mr. Cohen cites in footnotes. Though biased, Mr. Cohen shows some humility, mindful of the Rashomon-like quality of all memories shot through the prism of family. “After leading me through a well-crafted narrative,” Mr. Cohen writes, “my father said, ‘I urge you to be suspicious of everything I say.’”
The yarn bounces around, moving from an anecdote about his parents’ wedding to a sweeping history of sugar in just a few pages. These juxtapositions are clever, but eventually I felt like Mr. Cohen was stalling, filling pages with stories about explorers, scientists, entrepreneurs and gangsters before returning to the bait, the mysterious wrong done to his mother (which remains perplexing even by the end). He also gets a little carried away with his report on the scandal—I wasn’t roused to his level of indignation. But on the whole, he writes entertainingly, lining up characters like objects in a curio cabinet. He presents us with Sylvester Graham, the 19th-century Presbyterian minister who invented the graham cracker and became perhaps the first American diet guru: “For the rise in sugar consumption, he feared a terrible reckoning.” And when President Teddy Roosevelt rejected the first-ever proposal of a saccharin ban, he was “sitting on the edge of his desk in the Oval Office, legs crossed at the ankle, hair brushed to the side, buckteeth shining like piano keys.”
Despite the occasional lopsidedness, 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 is an editor at Economist.com.