Senators come and go. But one thing remains the same.
As a former U.S. Senate staffer, I can testify to the merits of the Senate Bean Soup recipe.
For my first job out of college, I worked as an entry-level Senate staffer in one of the country’s most expensive cities. The job barely paid the rent — though I did once ride an elevator with Mikhail Gorbachev. On the days I did not bring a sad, homemade lunch, I headed to the Senate cafeteria and got a cup of (very affordable) Senate Bean Soup — stuffing a fistful of free Saltine cracker packets into my bag for good measure.
This easy Navy bean soup, though sometimes labeled touristy, is salty and thick and stick-to-your-ribs. Maybe that’s why it’s been on the menu every day but one, for over 100 years.
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A Quick History of Senate Ham and Bean Soup
According to the U.S. Senate, the history of Senate Navy Bean Soup is more legend and guesswork than verifiable fact. One story says that in the early 1900s, Idaho senator Fred Dubois actually passed a resolution that the soup remain on the menu every day. (In its early days, the Senate Bean Soup recipe included potatoes; it no longer does.)
Another story says that in 1903, Minnesota senator Knute Nelson expressed his fondness for the soup.
Either way, some form of Senate bean soup has been on the menu every single day for 110 years — with one exception. For one day during World War II, the bean soup was unavailable due to food rations. The House of Representatives has its own competing bean soup, which likewise remains on the House cafeteria menu every day.
Recipe Notes: Senate Bean Soup
If you want to enjoy Senate Bean Soup today, there are two options. One option is to head to the Senate cafeteria, on the ground floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The other is to make the recipe yourself.
Because this is an easy soup to make, and requires no more travel than to the grocery store, the “make your own” option gets my vote. Just a few notes:
- Start with the ham and beans. Many soups call for cooking the onions first, and then adding everything else. But here, the ham and beans cook together first. This not only makes a delicious ham stock, but the beans cook and get infused with flavor from the outset.
- Cook the onions in the butter just until translucent, then add to the soup. Stir, simmer, and season.
Adapting the Recipe
The flavors are best described as hammy and beany. Probably because those are the only ingredients other than an onion and dab of butter. That is a good thing!
The original recipe is vague, so I have added a few specifics, like a suggested quantity of salt and pepper. I start with cold water, instead of the suggested hot water, because hot tap water generally is not as clean. This should be a very thick soup.
Technically, I would have liked to add something like, I don’t know, a bay leaf? But I stuck to the original as much as possible, so that is why the recipe is so simple. Also: This soup makes a fantastic recipe for those leftover ham bones around Easter or Christmas.
Did you make this Senate Bean Soup recipe? How was it?
U.S. Senate Bean Soup
- 1 pound dry navy beans
- 3/4 pound smoked ham hock
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- kosher salt, to taste (I do about 2 teaspoons)
- fresh black pepper, to taste
- Rinse the navy beans and pick over. Place beans into large pot with two quarts of cold water and the ham hock. Bring just to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for approximately three hours in a partially-covered pot, stirring occasionally, until the beans have fully softened.
- Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, lightly brown the onion in butter and add to the soup. Pull meat from the ham hocks and return to soup. Stir. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper.