“The scum has come. My cocoa’s cold.”
Those are the opening lines of a poem called “Lament, for Cocoa” by John Updike. The great author of upper-middle-class angst wrote a comic poem about having waited too long to take a sip of his hot cocoa, which cooled down and, as happens, a thin film — the scum — had formed at the top.
In Webster’s Dictionary the first meaning of the word “scum” — linguistically connected to “skim” — is the film that forms on top of some cooling liquids.
That meaning of scum has largely been lost, and the word is now a catchall for things we dislike. People we hate are scum. Those who think differently from the way we do are scum. Scumbag is another word for riffraff, dregs. Something we all despise.
I have a different take on scum.
Many decades ago I spent a few months in Karachi, Pakistan. I hung out at Saddar Bazaar, where you could get anything from live geckos — for mosquito control — to tropical fruit to Grateful Dead tapes. In the open-air square outside the bazaar, I became fascinated by a man who made and sold yogurt. He was thin and wiry, middle-aged and strong.
The yogurt this man sold was in a large, cylindrical, stainless steel container, about 5 feet in diameter and several inches deep. It looked like a calypso steel drum, but it was flat, not concave. The container sat on a wide wooden stool made of stout branches.
When a customer asked for yogurt, the yogurt man scooped up some of the yogurt and filled a little plastic bag, making sure each portion contained a bit of scum — the film on top of the yogurt, formed by the milk that had nearly boiled, then cooled. All of the yogurt man’s customers prized the scum. Loved it. Considered it the best part, like the heart of an artichoke.
They’d eat the yogurt by squeezing the filled plastic bag and some customers — those who believed in delayed gratification — would save the crusty film for last. Others would attack the scum first, just in case disaster struck, which, in Karachi, is always possible.
There were nights when I watched the yogurt man finish up. The timing depended on whether he’d sold his entire stock, of course, but by around 9 p.m., he’d go through the ritual that marked the end of his workday and the preparation for the following day.
He’d always leave a small amount of yogurt. Then he’d grab a large metal cask of warm milk — it was delivered to him every night — and he’d pour that entire cask of milk into the steel cylinder. Using a straw whisk, he’d gently stir the mixture of warm milk with the small amount of yogurt that remained.
Once the mix had settled, he’d cover it with tarpaulin, pulling it tight, then snapping clothespins all around, as if battening a hatch. During the night, the entire night, the yogurt culture would incubate, and in the morning — voilà! — the entire cylinder of milk would now have magically transformed into yogurt with a thin crusty film on top.
The scum had come. Nature had worked its magic! During the day, starting early, he’d sell it, making sure that each bag of yogurt contained a bit of the valued scum.
I have no idea what life the yogurt man had other than yogurt. One night I passed the square outside Saddar Bazaar late at night and saw him sleeping next to his yogurt. I’d seen that kind of single-minded dedication before: the milk seller in Pe Nang who cooled the milk by pouring it hand-to-distant-hand like a waterfall; the trinket seller under a bridge in Bangkok who touched each tiny clay Buddha to his forehead before carefully wrapping it.
Like them, the yogurt man created his own reality, his own world, and he was as devoted to it as a wartime soldier on guard duty.
Updike ends his poem like this: “The scum once come, is come for good.”
The yogurt man’s customers would agree. The scum does come for good.
It’s the best part.
Roberto Loiederman grew up in Baltimore and is co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny,” a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times. His email is email@example.com.