Senate Bean Soup

A bowl of senate bean soup.

U.S. Senate Bean Soup or simply Senate bean soup is a soup made with navy beansham hocks, and onion. It is served in the dining room of the United States Senate every day, in a tradition that dates back to the early 20th century. The original version included celery, garlic, parsley, and possibly mashed potatoes as well.

There are a couple different stories as to which senator instituted bean soup as a regular menu item in the senate cafeteria back in the 1900s. One story says it was Fred Dubois, from Idaho, who also said is should contain potatoes. The other story says it was Knute Nelson, of Minnesota, who expressed fondness for the soup in 1903. Either way it’s an institution that has been served every day since then, except for September 14th, 1943, when WWII Rationing caused the kitchen to run out of navy beans. I can’t say for certain if Covid-19 has disrupted the tradition or not- I see that the Senate Dining room is open for carry-out, but the menu is hidden. Soup seems like an easy take out item though, so I’d bet it’s still available.

I do know that Covid-19 has caused some shortages in grocery stores beyond toilet paper. The one I’ve noticed most is that the bean isle has been a little bare. The bag of navy beans I have at home was a few ounces short, but the store I went to was out, so I wound up using great northern beans, which are a tad larger. The senate recipes are specific about navy, but in general I find that most common varieties of white beans are pretty interchangeable.

As we all know meat processing plants have also been hit hard by Covid-19. Here in Duluth, smoked pork products seem to be the noticeable indication of that. For several weeks there have generally only been one or two pieces on the shelf when I’m looking for it. This week I actually had options- one package of hocks and one shank! I chose the shank, because it had more meat on the bones.

The bean soup is so famous that the Senate website has a page devoted to it, featuring two recipes- the one with mashed potatoes in it that supposedly was introduced by Senator Dubois, and the potato-less one that is currently served. Wikipedia has a long section about why the cooks working in the senate kitchen in the 1900’s probably wouldn’t have used potato, because the long simmering method for cooking beans traditional to southern cooking would have created the thick, creamy texture with just the beans, and potatoes would have altered that. For my version I chose to use the potato, largely because without it the recipe is very similar to my amish preaching soup.

Despite it’s fame, the soup also has a reputation for being bland and boring. Certainly it isn’t full of big bold flavors, but in my opinion it takes a handful of simple ingredients and makes something tasty and filling.

Senate Bean Soup

Serves: 8
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook:2 ½ hours
Total: 3 hours plus soaking time

1 lb. navy beans
1 meaty ham bone or smoked ham hock (about 1¼ lb.)
10 cups water

1 large russet potato, peeled and quartered
1 cup mashed potatoes

3 Tablespoons butter
2 medium onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ cup milk, mashed with potato
minced chive, for garnish
⅔ cup instant potato flakes, in place of potato
2 bay leaves

Sort and wash beans. Cover with water and soak overnight.

Drain beans, place in a soup pot or dutch oven with ham bone and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until beans are soft.

Meanwhile, place potato in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, 15 minutes or so. Drain and mash. When beans are soft, add potato to soup and return to a boil.

Melt butter in a saute pan. Saute onion, celery and garlic over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add to soup pot along with parsley, salt and pepper. Continue to simmer for another hour.

Remove ham bone and allow to cool slightly. Separate meat from bone and skin. Chop meat and return to soup. Adjust seasoning and serve.

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