Tastes like Cancer

J. Robert Lennon

  • Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen
    Cape, 272 pp, £12.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 07272 4

My mother and grandmother, when I was a child, were both fairly diet conscious, and I recall them using Sweet’N Low – the saccharin-based artificial sweetener – in their coffee whenever we went out to eat. When nobody was looking, I would sneak one of the pink packets out of its little square plastic dispenser, rip it open, lick my finger, poke the powder, and have a taste. It was disgusting, of course. Irresistibly disgusting. A thick, fake, heavy sweetness that gave way to a wallop of chemical taint. I would drink half a glass of water just to get the flavour out of my mouth, and then, when we went out again, I’d do the same thing.

I still go out to eat with my mother and grandmother, but they go for Equal now, or Splenda. Most people do: as sugar substitutes go, Sweet’N Low just can’t measure up to its aspartame and sucralose-based competitors. An unscientific and surreptitious survey of diner patrons would suggest that the people who still use Sweet’N Low are the same people who still wear fedoras, or drive Buicks, or voted for Ross Perot. It is forever associated with the past, and blind loyalty is the only conceivable reason to stick with the stuff.

Rich Cohen’s grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, founded Cumberland Packing, the developers of both Sweet’N Low and the sugar packet itself. So you might expect the results of his own taste test to err on the side of loyalty. Nope. ‘Tastes like cancer,’ he writes. ‘The aftertaste drags you to the mat.’ And then, after he gives Splenda a try: ‘Cumberland is going to get crushed.’ This exuberant bluntness is typical of the best bits of his book. His lack of loyalty isn’t ingratitude: his mother was disinherited from the family fortune (‘I hereby record that I have made no provision … for my daughter ELLEN or any of ELLEN’s issue for reasons I deem sufficient,’ is the way his grandmother put it in her will). The reasons for this disinheritance, and for the downfall – still ongoing – of Cumberland Packing are the book’s subjects; and they make for a vivid demonstration of the ways the personal and the political interact, often disastrously, with the economic.

Cumberland Packing was formed in 1945, when Ben Eisenstadt’s diner near the Navy Yard in Brooklyn started to fail; the dough-boys and dock workers who had been his customers during the war stopped coming. Eisenstadt tore out the tables and counter, bought a tea-bagging machine, and put up a sign that read ‘The Cumberland Packing Company’. The company trod water for a while, slowly losing money, until one day Eisenstadt and his wife, Betty, went out to lunch and, struggling with a clogged sugar dispenser, came up with the idea for the sugar packet. He sent the bagging machine back to the factory for repurposing, and pretty soon found himself showing his invention to the executives of Domino Sugar. They stole it, of course: Eisenstadt hadn’t bothered with a patent. It was a lesson he didn’t need to be taught twice. He landed packing deals with a few smaller sugar companies, and began packaging a few other things as well. Business picked up, the company grew, and Eisenstadt took on his son, Marvin, as a partner.

In the early 1950s, the only sugar substitute was called Sucaryl. It was part saccharin, part cyclamate, and it came either in pill or in liquid form, like medicine. Eisenstadt wanted to put the stuff on his grapefruit, and he and Marvin favoured the idea of getting it into a powdered form, so that they could package it like sugar. They imagined selling it to hospitals and drugstores, for use by diabetics. They hired a chemist to help them with the formula, and in 1957 filed a patent. The name came from an old song with lyrics taken from a Tennyson poem (‘Sweet and low, sweet and low,/ Wind of the western sea’); the package was designed by an aunt. ‘Aunt Barbara’, Cohen says, was ‘an amateur artist who, on vacations, used to paint funny faces on tennis balls’. Marvin may have suggested the packet colour: pink. It was instantly popular: ‘Packets were swiped from restaurants and stolen from hospitals,’ Cohen says. A&P, the supermarket chain, came calling, and pretty soon every diner in America offered Sweet’N Low alongside the sugar.

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