three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Rich Cohen
user_rating: 
0

A Family Story

A-SweetAndLowBen Eisenstadt’s first innovation, packaging sugar in individual paper packets, was a huge success. Unfortunately, his Brooklyn neighbor, Domino Sugar, reaped the reward by copying the idea. Undaunted, the attorney-turned-short-order-cook came up with an artificial sweetener he dubbed Sweet ’N Low. The pink packets soon became ubiquitous on the table of diabetics, dieters, and diners across the country, and the Eisenstadt family was an exemplar of the American dream. But FDA questions about the sweetener’s contents and even more serious inquiries into the heirs’ management of the company made maintaining the patriarch’s legacy much more difficult than inheriting it. The author’s mother was eligible for the Eisenstadt family fortune but disinherited from it, and at least part of the impetus behind Sweet and Low is settling the score.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $25. ISBN: 0374272298

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Although Mr. Cohen is probably using this book to settle scores on some level, he has also 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

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Instead of banal exhortations about leadership and knowledge silos, Mr. Cohen gives us the Brooklyn equivalent of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks—a vivid saga of family and business inextricably entwined, of siblings competing for love and money, of prosperity’s effects from one generation to the next." Daniel Akst

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Cohen moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get. … [He] recognizes that he has told the story of how families fracture and grow apart." John Barlow

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Melvin Bukiet

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It takes nerve to play investigative reporter with your own family, and Cohen writes about the addictive thrill. … Reading him savage his relatives, you sometimes wonder, is he allowed to do this? It’s a guilty pleasure—sort of like sugar without calories." Kate Zernike

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"Cohen spends too much time on some things and not enough time on others but he is such a funny, self-deprecating guide to his tragically comedic family it hardly matters. 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." Karen Karbo

Critical Summary

Reviewers don’t blame Eisenstadt scion Rich Cohen for bearing a grudge. The Los Angeles Times notes that "[h]ell hath no fury like a writer deprived," but in the hands of Cohen, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of Tough Jews and The Avengers, the ire is transformed into compelling reading. Intimate family details—and not everyone is cast in the most flattering of lights—personalize a larger story of the family company and pre- and postwar Brooklyn. The only lapses? A grasp for the "Big Sweep," the tendency for small-scale histories to reach for larger themes (New York Times Book Review), and suspected missing parts of the story.