Not So Sweet

By Carter B. Horsley

Being overweight, I jumped aboard the Sweet & Low bandwagon many years ago and have been delighted by the calories it has saved me and the wear and tear on my one belt.

The other day my associates were in the mood for burgers at Jackson Hole on Madison Avenue and 91st Street. It was very crowded, but after not too long a wait we got seated at a table on the restaurant's balcony, which used to be reserved for smokers until the restaurant got completely correct politically, unfortunately, and banned smoking altogether.

We gave our orders and I asked for "a black coffee with Sweet & Low," something I had ordered successfully there many times in the past.

A few minutes later, I was brought my coffee but with two packs of Equal. I called the waiter back and asked for the Sweet & Low. There are differences. Equal is blue and Sweet & Low is pink, for one thing. Now it's true that Thomas Gainsborough divided the world into blue boys and pink girls and I'm not a girl, but I do like to "think pink" occasionally as the movie "Funny Face" so "marvelous"-ly advised.

"We don't have Sweet & Low, Equal's the same," blurted the waiter.

I was not amused and said it was not the same and "cancel my order." I got up and left in a huff, leaving my associates and the waiter stunned/dumbfounded. To my great chagrin, I later learned my mortified associates paid for my canceled food order. I abraded them, explaining that if the waitress had said there was no Sweet & Low when I ordered, I would have left then and that it was her, and the restaurant's, fault and they should not have paid that portion of the bill. The only way a restaurant will learn a lesson is by speaking in a language they understand. Since the rest of my order was a mushroom burger and fries, the restaurant would not have been "out" much, if anything, since its turnover for such ingredients, especially at lunch time which it was, is so huge.

As most people know, coffee is the last part of most meals for many people and it is the taste you usually leave a restaurant with, its lingering memory. Sweet & Low is not a new, esoteric product and its share of the sweetener market is probably very high. To be peddled Equal in its place smacks of a conspiracy to restrain trade since Equal's taste is vastly different than that of Sweet & Low. It is very bitter while Sweet & Low is very sweet. Some people argue that Equal is healthier than Sweet & Low, which may, or may not, be the case. Some people like choices and freedom and some people are not pure, not perfect. Some people even drink alcohol and some, believe it or not, smoke. They may not all be bright, lovely people, but they are people.

Had I not specifically ordered Sweet & Low with my coffee, my outrage would be somewhat subdued and I would simply remember to boycott Jackson Hole, which I otherwise quite like, always being awed by the generous servings and generally pleasant service. In this case, the waitress acted offended and looked at me as if I was crazy to suggest there was a difference between Equal and Sweet & Low.

A few days later, I ventured into Le Pain Quotidien, a very attractive new bakery/café on Madison Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets and ordered a "black coffee with Sweet & Low" to go. They courteously poured me a cup and proffered it to me with two packs of Equal. I repeated my order, calmly, and they said they did not carry Sweet & Low, at which point I declined the coffee and walked out. The waitress said "O.K.," very nicely, to her credit, though I think I detected a fleeting thought of condescension that anyone would risk addiction to a possible carcinogen.

The bakery is so attractive and does provide natural brown sugar and does have marvelous Belgian waffles and superb coffee that I might start to lug around the pink Sweet & Low packets in my pockets, but on principal I am perturbed. Should we require restaurants and coffee shops to post signs, or offer refunds, or offer release forms relieving restaurants of negligence liability or whatever. The only other time I encountered this Equal problem was several years ago at Ecco, a very handsome and very pretentious SoHo restaurant, but the dining experience had been so dreadful that by the time I ordered the coffee with Sweet & Low and was told imperiously that "We don't carry Sweet & Low" the insult rolled off my back.

The moral, of course, is carry your own, or patronize only civilized places like the New Amity Coffee Shop on Madison Avenue between 84th and 85th Street that has superb coffee and plenty of Sweet & Low.

On June 7, 1997, some companions were hankering for a Jackson Hole delectable, in this instance, fried mozzarella sticks, and since I was armed with a couple of Sweet & Low's in my pocket and since I did have a pang of journalistic conscience, I went along.

I ordered something fattening and some "black coffee with Sweet & Low," and, lo and behold, the waitress produced from her apron, two of the pink packets.  I, naturally, said, "thank you."

You can go back to Jackson Hole!

It is true that many soda shops in the 1940's did not carry both Coke and Pepsi. One pities lovers of things with more choices, like beer. Not every saloon carries several hundred different brands of beer. Not every restaurant carries thousands of wines. Not every hot-dog stand carries hundreds of mustards. Yes, we must make do. Attention must be paid. Perhaps we should insist on signs saying "Equal served here," or "No Sweet & Low-ing," or "Drink it Black and Pure and Plain."

Life is not always fair, but New York did not become great by being politically, or environmentally, correct. Enough already! A little common sense, please.

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