The origins of Senate bean soup are as nebulous as what’s in the bowl. According to legend, either Senate Democrat Frank Dubois or Republican Knute Nelson loved the soup enough to request it be available every day at the Senate dining room, where it’s stayed on the menu for more than a hundred years.
The soup’s ingredients include creamy navy beans, pig knuckle meat, butter, and chopped onion. On occasion, mashed potatoes make an appearance. The soup is homey and filling, if not glamorous. But this is the Senate, and lobbying may have solidified its presence. According to a longtime New York Times photographer, midcentury navy bean lobbyists bought the soup for the press and senators. The soup arrived “whether you asked for it or not.”
While visitors typically order it instead of senators, the soup has endured thanks to the Senate’s predilection for tradition. The menu has only been off the menu for one day: Due to World War II rationing, the Senate kitchen didn’t have enough beans to make the soup on September 14, 1943. The next day, though, the soup returned.
Since it can only be ordered on site, Senate bean soup enjoyed relative obscurity until it made headlines in 1949. That year, Marion Carpenter, the first female White House photographer, dumped a bowl on the head of a columnist who’d written that she used feminine wiles to get photos of well-known politicians.
Even if you don’t have the necessary invitation from your senator to enter the semi-private dining room, the Senate has cafes that serve the soup. The House of Representatives has offered a near-identical version, too, ever since a famous Speaker of the House demanded it be on the menu in 1904. At least those old-time politicians could agree on soup.
Need to Know
The Senate dining room is invitation-only, but facilities like the Dirksen North Cafe and the American Grill are open to the public.