Famed bean soup a unifying force in the Senate since 1903

  • Try making The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup at home.

      Try making The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup at home. M. Eileen Brown | Staff Photographer

Posted1/8/2020 6:05 AM

Nobody's looking for political commentary in the Food section.

Yet, I'm kind of going there -- but just for a second, so don't worry. The U.S. Senate is going to be in the news this month, which got me to thinking about the soup that we're in, which got me thinking about soup, particularly Senate Bean Soup.


The beloved navy bean and ham soup has been served every day in Senate restaurants since 1903 and its deliciousness seems to be something everyone agrees on.

In doing a bit of research, I discovered there's a teeny bit of controversy, but would you expect anything different? According to the U.S. Senate website, there seem to be conflicting views over who started the tradition. Some say it was Sen. Fred Dubois of Idaho, while others say Sen. Knute Nelson of Minnesota. Nobody seems to know for sure.

Nelson preferred it plain -- beans, ham, water and onion. Dubois, who represented a state known for potatoes, opted for adding mashed potatoes and a few more aromatics including celery and garlic. The current version served in the Senate dining room is the more simple version and does not include the spuds. But I say give that one a try, especially if you have leftover mashed potatoes. (Just add two cups in the last hour or so of cooking).

This is definitely one of those recipes where the sum is greater than the parts. It's so simple and the result is far better than you might expect. The only thing you really need is patience, particularly if you are cooking this the old-fashioned way as it takes at least three hours to ensure the beans are cooked thoroughly.

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The recipe does not call for soaking the beans overnight. Your call … but I generally do the overnight soak.

If you managed to score an Instant Pot over the holidays, this is the perfect place to start realizing the benefits of a pressure cooker -- you'll have soup ready in about 40 minutes, give or take.

In any case, may I suggest you put politics aside for a bit and enjoy this soup, which somehow manages to bring everyone together.

• M. Eileen Brown is the Daily Herald's director of strategic marketing and innovation and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.

The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup

2 pounds dried navy beans

Four quarts hot water

1½ pounds smoked ham

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. Place the beans into the pot with hot water. Add ham and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally. Remove ham and set aside to cool. Dice meat and return to the soup. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to the soup. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper.

*While the recipe does not call for it, I added 1 stalk of celery chopped and 2 cloves of garlic chopped to the onion mixture.

Serves 8.

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