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.

‘I think I saw the exact moment,’ Cohen writes, ‘when my mother realised that every member of her family was rich.’ The Cohens were touring Uncle Marvin’s house, a mansion on the beach in Neponsit, when the sound of piano music reached their ears. It was an old player-piano – but no ordinary one. Rather than merely repeating a sequence of notes, the piano could record, through an elaborate mechanism, a particular performance. Marvin happened to own piano rolls recorded by Gershwin. This ostentation – the ‘Gershwin piano rolls’ – came to symbolise, for Cohen’s mother, the culture of affluence that had sprung up in her family.

But as the Eisenstadt family grew accustomed to its affluence, the American food industry was undergoing its own upheaval. The days of unregulated additives were over; people had become obsessively health-conscious, and a series of disasters, including the horror of thalidomide, had tightened the FDA’s regulatory influence. The second most important ingredient in Sweet’N Low, at this time, was cyclamate, a less powerful sweetener that reduced saccharin’s unpalatable aftertaste. Studies conducted in the late 1960s showed that large amounts of the stuff could possibly cause cancer. The correlation was loose, the amount required to have an effect enormous, but cyclamate was banned.

Cumberland, however, was prepared. Rich Cohen’s immediate family was living in Illinois, not far from a chemical plant called Abbott Labs, and his mother was friendly with the wives of some of its employees. She heard that Abbott, a big player in the sweetener market, was not going to fight the cyclamate ban – meaning that it was very likely to go through. She tipped off her father and brother, and they immediately put a new, cyclamate-free formula into production, giving them several weeks’ head start on their competitors. (Marvin’s version of the story doesn’t involve his sister at all: he claims that he merely ‘had a gut feeling’ about the ban.) Cumberland not only dodged a bullet but increased its market share. Cohen believes that it was under the influence of what the business world calls ‘the founder’s effect’. ‘As long as the founder is in control,’ he writes, ‘God is in the garden. When God goes, no one will ever again speak with the same authority.’ Soon after the cyclamate ban, Eisenstadt handed over the company to his son.

Several studies in the early 1970s suggested that saccharin might be connected to cancer. In one of them, rats were fed ‘monster doses’ of sweetener, ‘shot directly into their bodies – the equivalent of eight hundred cans of Diet Coke a day’. Some of the male rats developed bladder tumours. It was eventually shown – much later – that the tumours were caused not by saccharin as such, but by its sodium content, combined with acid in unusually high concentration in male rat urine. Today, saccharin is considered safe. But the FDA’s reaction at the time was to initiate a ban.

Cumberland might have innovated, as it had before. Instead, it chose to fight the ban. Ultimately, it won: Congress enacted a series of moratoriums deferring the decision, and the company was able to continue manufacturing Sweet’N Low. Indeed, business was unusually brisk at this time, as devoted consumers began hoarding the product, fearful they wouldn’t be able to get it any more. But the competition did innovate, and came up with better products. Cumberland had peaked; their market dominance would slide, and American taste would move on.

Why did Cumberland choose to fight the saccharin ban, when changing its product had worked so well before? Part of the reason, we’re led to believe, was Marvin’s management style, which was cruder and less adaptable than his father’s. But Cumberland also fought because they believed they could win. And they believed they could win because they had influence – much of which was not, strictly speaking, legal.

Ben Eisenstadt, we’re told, played by the rules: ‘He was unquestionable, beyond corruption. In a recent survey, 82 per cent of American CEOs admitted to cheating at golf. Ben never played golf, or tennis, or bought a nice car, or a new house, or a nice suit, or went on vacation. He was austere.’ Marvin, on the other hand, liked to throw a little money around, and his taste in associates was not as conservative as his father’s. His right-hand men at the company were a couple of guys called Gil Mederos and Joe Asaro. Mederos was a handyman and mechanic who knew Marvin from his first days at Cumberland, when they both worked on the factory floor. By the 1980s, however, Mederos was the company’s chief financial officer. Asaro, Cumberland’s vice-president for governmental affairs, was in charge of handling the saccharin ban and its series of moratoriums.

Mederos and Asaro lived on the same block of the same street in Old Westbury, Long Island. Their houses were huge and garlanded with bling: ‘the three-storey foyer that makes a man feel like a god; the $17,000 front door imported from northern Italy; the curvy backyard pool fed by a waterfall; the hot tub; the gazebo’. All these amenities were paid for with money stolen from Cumberland Packing. It’s unclear – to the reader, Cohen and the world at large – just how deeply Marvin was involved in this conspiracy. But it’s certainly clear that he was. What seems most likely to have happened is that Asaro, Mederos and Mederos’s brother, Mario, hatched a plan to set up shell companies – ‘fake businesses that would interpose themselves in the Cumberland flow chart as phoney middle men’ – that would buy raw materials and sell them to Cumberland at inflated prices, with the balance going to the conspirators. They faked invoices and work orders, charged the company for non-existent deliveries, and used the shell companies to pay contractors for personal work – such as installing $17,000 doors.

The scheme fell under the scrutiny of the FBI, which had been investigating corruption on the waterfront. Marvin tried to keep the scandal under wraps, tamping down the damage and clamping a lid over the whole thing. Asaro and the Mederos brothers were kept on at the company after promising to play nice. Needless to say, they didn’t. The Mederos brothers took the brunt of the punishment, ending up in prison; Asaro and Marvin escaped with fines.

Cohen is very interested in the degree to which his uncle knew what was going on at Cumberland. He points out that Marvin took advantage of the same personal contractors that Asaro and the Mederos had. The real accounting books were hidden for a while inside a wall in the Cumberland offices. Marvin, Asaro and Gil Mederos had their offices in the same hallway, all within shouting distance of one another, and spent every day in one another’s company, running Cumberland. Was it possible, Cohen asks, that Marvin didn’t know what was going on right under his nose?

A clue is to be had in the person of Alfonse D’Amato. D’Amato was a Republican senator from New York known for his mob ties, underworld poker parties and cosy relationships with lobbyists. Among these lobbyists was one Joseph Asaro. D’Amato’s voice in Congress was powerful, and his sponsorship of the continuing moratoriums on the saccharin ban was extremely helpful to Cumberland. It was found that Asaro had skirted campaign finance laws by collecting cheques from individual Cumberland employees and their family members, then giving them all to D’Amato’s campaign in one go. The donations were technically separate, but it would have been clear to the senator that the money – $76,500 – was coming from Cumberland. How, Cohen sensibly wonders, could Marvin not have known about that?

Researching his family, Cohen writes, he often ‘felt the thrill of a private detective’, and to some extent, the reader shares the thrill. But the political and corporate intrigue cannot hold a candle to the material about Cohen’s family. In a sense, it’s all of a piece – the company is the family, and the family is the company. But Cohen’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in it when he writes about the saccharin ban, or the history of sugar, or the settlement of New York. It isn’t that these portions of the book are uninteresting or badly written; on the contrary, they are neat, efficient glosses on complex, unwieldy subjects. It’s just that they can’t measure up to Cohen’s hilarious profiles of his eccentric relatives.

Here he is, for example, on his grandma Esther, his father’s mother, not an Eisenstadt, and so not a major player in the story:

Grandma Betty was careful about what she said and to whom. Esther said everything to everyone … She took an afternoon to tell a story that could be told in five minutes, then wound it up by saying: ‘That’s it in a nutshell.’ For me, an early memory is my father on the phone saying, Ma, Ma, please, Ma, oh, Ma! Ma! Ma! I once heard her ask a woman in her condo complex: ‘Why do you hate me, fatso?’ I once heard her say to a Holocaust survivor: ‘You are one Hitler should not have let get away.’ When she took me and my sister to see Yentl, she asked for three tickets, one senior, two children. My sister was 30, I was 22. The three of us saw Yentl for four dollars. She could defrost a three-course meal in six minutes … Cubans made her nervous. She believed there was a book in Jerusalem in which her name was inscribed in gold.

Cohen goes on to describe the dementia of her later years by saying: ‘She was old, but then she got really old.’

A lot of Cohen’s neatest writing is, like this, concentrated in throwaway bits of the story. In a footnote on the girth of President William Howard Taft, he says the man was ‘famous as the president who got stuck in a bathtub, which is easy to picture, but hard to picture clearly’. ‘I knew the kid who lived there,’ he says about a mansion in his home town. ‘His father had a handlebar moustache and stood in the driveway without a shirt.’ A ‘straitlaced and stern’ lawyer is wearing ‘the kind of big class ring I sometimes imagine opening a cut beneath my eye’.

If the book has a weakness, it’s that it tends towards fragmentation. Cohen has a hard time keeping up any narrative momentum. This may be complicated, fragmentary material, but a writer ought to be able to find the thread and follow it. Cohen, however, writes like a guy who keeps going out for a smoke. By the time you get to the end, you can see why: he is really taking the stuffing out of his own family here, which is not an easy task to stay focused on. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last forty pages, where he addresses at last his mother’s disinheritance.

In 1995, Ben Eisenstadt was diagnosed with a failing heart valve and was scheduled for surgery to have it replaced. He was 88. To prepare him for the procedure, his doctors prescribed an antibiotic, which sent him into anaphylactic shock and nearly killed him. At the time, Cohen’s parents were staying on Long Island, in a rented house in Amagansett. Ellen, Cohen’s mother, thought that her father had been poorly treated at Maimonides, the hospital that had given him the medicine (and of which he had for many years been a generous benefactor), and suggested he instead see David Blumenthal, a cousin and one of the best cardiologists in New York. Blumenthal ran a series of tests, told Ben his heart would soon fail, and put him under the knife. The valve was replaced successfully.

But there was a problem. A few weeks later, a stitch popped, and became infected. Because of what had happened at Maimonides, Ben hadn’t been given an antibiotic, and now, again because of his apparent allergy, the infection would be very hard to treat. He fell into a coma, and died five months later. It turned out he hadn’t been allergic to the antibiotic after all – Maimonides had probably administered it wrongly.

Cohen’s aunt Gladys, who lived in the old family home with Betty, Ben’s wife, and never left her room, began to blame Ellen for Ben’s death. She went on to accuse her of not visiting the hospital enough when Ben was in his coma (Gladys herself, of course, had never visited once). When Ben finally died, Ellen and her husband were in Paris on a business trip, and ended up flying home on Concorde in order to attend the funeral: Gladys, Cohen suspects, had scheduled the funeral immediately so that his parents wouldn’t make it back in time. Later, Gladys used this incident to denounce Ellen, telling Cohen’s sister, incoherently: ‘Your mother is the richest woman in the country. She goes to Paris … She flies on the Concorde. Where do we go? What do we do?’ The answers to the second question appeared to be ‘nothing whatsoever’ and ‘stay rich’, since Betty disinherited Ellen and left everything of any value to her other children, including Gladys.

It seems crazy. It is crazy. This, presumably, is why Rich Cohen wanted to write about his family. Late in the book, he asks: ‘Just why were Ellen and her issue disinherited?’ His answer is a long, chaotic paragraph that starts with Ben’s illness and death, and continues:

because Ellen married too young, because Morris wanted to buy Herbie into the business, because Ellen left Flatbush for Bensonhurst and Bensonhurst for the world … because if Ben loved Ellen how could Ben love Betty, because Ellen tried to steal Ben away from Betty, because Gladys was there and Ellen was not … It’s like infinity. If you think about it too deeply, you go crazy.

Cohen only just stays sane.