Recipe: Senate Bean Soup (1903)

 Ingredients for Senate Bean Soup, Photo: Eric Colleary

Senate Bean Soup is one of the many great traditions of the American Congress. Bean soups have likely always appeared on Capitol Hill menus for as long as there has been a Capitol – owing to the simplicity of the recipe matched with the ready availability of ingredients. However, it has been consistently on the menu for over a century.

One story suggests it was Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota who first requested the soup in 1903. Others believe it was Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho around that same time, who requested his bean soup with potatoes. Either or both are possible. The soup served in the Senate today is potato-less, and generally follows the recipe below – which is published by the U.S. Senate.

Senate Bean Soup, Photo: Senate Historical OfficeWhen I worked as a Congressional Page some years ago, I remember Senate Bean Soup being served in all the cafeterias in the Capitol Hill complex – Senate and House alike. It is basically a simple bean soup recipe, using ham hocks which are inexpensive and readily available in the Virginia/Maryland area. Not living in that area, I was fortunate to find ham shanks – which is the upper part of the shoulder legs, as opposed to hocks which are part of the rear/ham legs.

This is an immensely satisfying soup that even Senators can agree is good for all seasons. I was concerned at first that the soup may be bland – with only a bit of ham supplying any flavor and a bit of braised onion added at the end. But this is one of those moments of magic in the kitchen, where a small handful of simple ingredients combined and cooked properly can transform into something rich and complex.

The Recipe

2 pounds dried navy beans

four quarts hot water

1 1/2 pounds smoked ham hocks

1 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

salt and pepper to taste

Wash the navy beans and run hot water through them until they are slightly whitened [Preferring a very tender bean, I soaked mine in cold water overnight]. Place beans into pot with hot water. Add ham hocks and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally. Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Dice meat and return to soup. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to soup. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Serves 8.

Senate Bean Soup: Wash the Beans, Photo: Eric CollearySenate Bean Soup: Bring Water to Boil, Add Ham, Photo: Eric Colleary
Senate Bean Soup: Cool Ham and Separate, Photo: Eric CollearySenate Bean Soup: Return Meat to Pot, Photo: Eric Colleary
Senate Bean Soup: Braise Onions in Butter, Photo: Eric CollearySenate Bean Soup, Photo: Eric Colleary