Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen
There's a great, lively, extremely Brooklyn family memoir to be found in Rich Cohen's Sweet and Low... but you have to be willing to slog through stretches when the people fade to the background for unnecessary, unenlightening social history (America's 1960s obsession with dieting) as well as a fairly tedious investigation of a routine (albeit brazen) corporate crime.
The good stuff: Cohen's family, filled with often off-the-wall, sometimes horribly mean-spirited, almost always entertaining characters. In the book's first (and, I think, much better) half, we meet:
• Grandpa Ben, who nearly went broke running a cafeteria near the Brooklyn shipyards, then got into the teabag-stuffing business (Tetley and Lipton were unworried), then parlayed a true moment of inspiration—instead of using those messy, frequently clogged dispensers, restaurants should serve sugar in little packets—into the beginnings of the family fortune.
• Uncle Marvelous, an insecure mechanical genius who took over the company and really got the money rolling in by inventing and distributing Sweet 'n Low... but whose naivety almost sank the company when he put a bunch of "connected" guys on the payroll, and seemingly turned a blind eye—or was he a confederate?—as they systematically robbed the place.
• Grandma Betty, who sealed Rich's fate by disinheriting his side of the family on her deathbed. "To my daughter Ellen and her issue," she declared, "I leave nothing!"
• Aunt Gladys, whose psoriasis (among other things) kept her from leaving her (freezing-cold) room for more than 30 years, but whose deft manipulation of family politics and the telephone made her a force to be reckoned with.
• Uncle Ira, a genuine eccentric with an Upper East Side townhouse lousy with cats, a fondness for purses, a improbable bushy red beard, and a knack for the discomforting, such as this exchange with Rich at the urinals during a relative's wedding:
"What's the last thing you want your crazy uncle to say to you in the bathroom?"
Unfortunately, I thought Cohen got bogged down in his explication of what really happened at the factory during the "organized crime" years, as well as his exploration as to why Sweet 'n Low was such a runaway hit (basically: right product, right time). But like I said, the family stuff is great. Here's a brief excerpt:
"Grandma Betty was careful about what she said and to whom. Grandma Esther said everything to everyone. She was the loudmouth immigrant who suddenly becomes a member of your family. 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.' 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 thirty, I was twenty-two. The three of us saw Yentl for four dollars. She was, according to my father, the nation's foremost expert in cryogenics. She used the word schvartze. Cubans made her nervous. She believed there was a book in Jerusalem in which her name was inscribed in gold. She was old, but then she got really old. When I was driving her home, she demanded to see my license, studied it, then gave it back like a skeptical cop. She said the angel of death had lost her address. 'He must have been distracted at a party and forgotten.'"