The Union general, high atop his horse, casts an appraising eye on the burning railroad trestle. He turns to the locomotive engineer and confidently says, "That bridge is not burned enough to stop you."
This scene is perhaps the best-known sequence in the 1926 silent Buster Keaton comedy The General, a true classic and one of the funniest movies ever made.
The film is based, to some extent, on a true event from the Civil War (stick with me on this, I'll be getting to food soon). Northern troops stole a Southern locomotive called The General. Keaton plays that train's engineer who tracks it down, steals it back, and brings it back behind Southern lines. All the way, he is chased by Northern troops.
The Southern engineer pauses just long enough to douse a wooden bridge with kerosene and set it alight. That is when the Union general chasing him tells his train's engineer, "That bridge is not burned enough to stop you."
The train proceeds across the burning bridge. About halfway across, the bridge collapses, sending the train and its inhabitants into the river far below. The film cuts back to the general; the look on his face is priceless. It is a look of, well, mostly annoyance.
All this was brought to mind (actually, it's never far from my mind) by a recent visit to a Central Avenue grocery market. I needed swordfish for a recipe I was making, and I knew they had it; just two steaks left.
This was a Monday, and Monday is often a good day not to buy fish. I looked at the steaks before I bought them, and to be perfectly frank they did not look notably fresh. Their color had started to dull just a bit, and fish should always be bright (and if the head is attached, the eyes should be clear). I asked the guy behind the counter when they had got it, and he said it had come in on Friday.
That was four days before. A bit iffy, perhaps, but still within the freshness realm of possibility. Then the guy behind the counter said, "It will be fine."
Go ahead. That bridge is not burned enough to stop you.
So I bought the swordfish. Only when I got it home did I sniff it. It smelled fine or close enough to fine, with just the faintest hint of fishiness. The flesh was firm, as it should be, and while it wasn't particularly moist (which would have been a good thing), neither was there any slime (which would have been a bad, bad thing). I fired up the grill, brushed the fish with olive oil, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and put it on the hot grates.
While they cooked, I made a sauce: shallots, chives, Dijon mustard, clam juice (the recipe ran last week). I pulled the fish off the grill, dappled it with the sauce, and chowed down.
It was great. What were you expecting?
So happy was I with my fish and sauce that I brought a sample in to my wife to taste. She took a bite and while she did not actively spit it out, her face registered an immediate look of disgust. It was awful, she said, it tasted much too fishy.
I am man enough to admit this: My pride was a little hurt. There I was, making this great dish and generously offering my lovely bride a piece of it. And she had the audacity to scrunch up her face.
Sniffling ever so quietly, I skulked back to the kitchen to finish my fish. I thoroughly enjoyed every bite — until I got to the part of the steak that I had sliced off to give to my wife.
I nearly gagged. It was disgusting, with a horrible, metallic aftertaste that simply refused to leave. Obviously, most of the fish was fine, but one corner of it had very much gone bad.
"That bridge is not burned enough to stop you," says the general. But maybe, if there is a doubt in your mind, you should listen to those second thoughts rattling in your brain. Don't cross the bridge, and don't buy the four-day-old fish.