The U.S. Senate Has Its Own Signature Soup

Have you ever wondered what keeps the members of Congress fueled up and ready to keep going about the business of ruling our country? And did you ever imagine it was a whole lot of bean soup?

The Senate Bean Soup is a beloved tradition in Washington. Every day since around 1903 or 1904, this soup has been on the menu at the Senate cafeteria, with only one exception: There was a single day in the 1940s when World War II rations led to a shortage of navy beans, preventing the soup from being made. Aside from that, it's been around for 120 years. To put that amount of time in context, the U.S. Constitution has been amended twelve times since then — while the Senate's favorite soup has remained the same.

The soup is extremely simple, a salty and hearty concoction of navy beans (dried, not canned beans), a ham hock, a braised onion, and a little butter. Hardly groundbreaking, but fairly inoffensive, this white bean soup recipe is likely to appeal to a large crowd.

The origins of the Senate soup

There are dueling theories about where the soup came from. Some say that Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho, who oversaw the Senate Restaurant at the turn of the century, is behind the bean soup mandate. Others think that Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota, a contemporary of Dubois, is responsible for its continued presence.

There are two different versions of the Senate Bean Soup, both of which are outlined on their own special page on the Senate's website. The standard recipe uses a braised onion and makes about a gallon. But there is also a recipe attributed to Dubois, which has no onion but does include mashed potatoes. The potato version makes five gallons, which on its own should speak to the assumed popularity of the dish.

This soup became so popular in Congress that the House of Representatives created their own version. House Speaker Joe Cannon is responsible for putting bean soup on the menu at the House cafeteria in 1904, with a slight difference: The House soup omits the braised onions.

Is it any good?

The Dirksen Cafeteria — where the Senate Bean Soup is served — is open to the public, so you can go and try it yourself if you feel like enjoying a hot meal surrounded by America's legislators. It costs $3.30 for an 8 oz cup, a pretty affordable snack. Many Senate staffers are said to find the soup to be somewhat touristy, and more likely to take advantage of the cafeteria's other offerings (including a variety of soups).

But there's a kind of humble, all-American simplicity to the soup that seems to have struck a chord. Through war and famine, plague and economic crises, you will always be able to find a ham hock, an onion, and some beans, and make enough soup with them to feed an entire governing body. Its continued presence on the Senate cafeteria menu speaks for itself: Laws may come and laws may go, but the Senate Bean Soup is here to stay.