Origins and History of Senate Bean Soup

In the halls of the U.S. Senate, a culinary tradition has quietly simmered for over a century — Senate Bean Soup. This hearty soup, primarily made of navy beans, ham hock, and onions, firmly holds its place on the Senate's dining menu. Two stories vie for authenticity regarding its origins.

The most widely accepted tale credits Idaho Senator Fred Dubois with orchestrating a resolution in the early 1900s, requiring the soup's daily service in the Senate dining room. Though the mashed potatoes he allegedly included have since been omitted, they speak to the dish's historical flexibility.

Another account points to Minnesota Senator Knute Nelson, who championed the soup's daily inclusion in 1903. Regardless of its progenitor, the bean soup's steadfast presence is undebated. Even during World War II rationing, it only failed to appear once — a testament to its resilience.

Over time, the original navy beans, ham hocks, onions, and water recipe has seen variations like added celery, garlic, and parsley. Yet, the core identity remains intact. Senate Bean Soup also represents sustainability and resourcefulness, deploying leftover ham bones to maximize flavor and minimize waste — an economical cooking approach with universal appeal.

Today, senators, staffers, and visitors indulge in this symbolic staple, commemorating tradition and adaptability amidst the ever-shifting political landscape. This humble dish, with its storied past and reliable comfort, stands as a resolute fixture in the nation's capital.

Ingredients Breakdown

Navy Beans: The foundation, navy beans hold their shape well and have a mild flavor that absorbs the savory essence of other ingredients. Great Northern or cannellini beans offer textural variations.

Ham Hock vs. Smoked Turkey: Traditionally, a smoked ham hock imparts a distinct, smoky flavor, depth, and silky texture. Smoked turkey legs provide a lighter yet hearty alternative.

Onion: Sautéed in butter until translucent and slightly browned, onions contribute sweetness, depth, and caramelized notes.

Butter: Essential for sautéing onions and enriching the soup's velvety texture.

Salt and Pepper: Crucial for seasoning and enhancing natural flavors without overwhelming.

Additional Vegetables (Optional): Celery lends a fresh, peppery bite; garlic enhances aroma and umami; parsley provides a bright, herbaceous contrast.

Baking Soda (Optional): Alters pH to soften beans' tough skin and reduce cooking time.

Mashed Potatoes (Optional): Thickens and enriches the soup's texture.

Navy beans, a smoked ham hock, onions, and assorted vegetables

Cooking Techniques and Tips

Soaking Beans: Rinsing and soaking overnight (or a quick soak) helps achieve the right texture and reduces cooking time.

Simmering Methods: Gentle simmering over low heat allows beans to cook evenly and absorb flavors from ham hock or smoked turkey. Stir occasionally and maintain the desired consistency by adding liquid if needed.

Achieving the Right Consistency: Cook beans until tender and beginning to break down, releasing starches. For a creamier texture, gently mash some beans. For a thicker consistency, continue simmering uncovered to evaporate liquid.

Using Instant Mashed Potatoes: A convenient thickener contributing to a creamy, rich texture without additional potatoes.

Enhancing Flavor:

  1. Use quality broth for depth.
  2. Sauté vegetables until lightly browned for caramelized richness.
  3. Season toward the end, adjusting salt and pepper to taste.

With these techniques, you can master Senate Bean Soup, delivering a dish rich in history and comforting flavors, connecting you to a tradition enduring for over a century.

A pot of simmering Senate Bean Soup with navy beans, ham hock, and onions

Variations and Substitutions

While navy beans are the traditional choice, exploring different bean varieties can bring unique textures and flavors to Senate Bean Soup. Great Northern beans offer a heartier bite, while cannellini beans contribute a creamy richness. For a slightly sweeter note, try pinto beans.

Substituting smoked turkey leg for the ham hock is an excellent alternative for those reducing pork consumption. The smoked turkey provides a similar rich smokiness and depth of flavor. Prepare it the same way: simmering the turkey with beans until tender, then shredding the meat and returning it to the soup.

Enhance the soup with additional vegetables like carrots for natural sweetness, celery for a subtle peppery taste, fresh parsley for an herbaceous burst, or minced garlic for aromatic richness. Sauté these ingredients with the onions before adding them to the soup.

Recipe for Senate Bean Soup Variations


  • 1 pound dried beans (navy, Great Northern, cannellini, or pinto)
  • 1 smoked turkey leg OR 1 pound smoked ham hock
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: 3 carrots, diced; 3 stalks celery, chopped; 1 teaspoon minced garlic; 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley


  1. Rinse and soak beans overnight in cold water. Drain.
  2. Place beans and smoked turkey leg or ham hock in a pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Simmer, covered, for 2 hours until meat is tender and beans are soft.
  3. Remove meat, shred, and return to pot. Discard bones.
  4. In a skillet, sauté onion and optional vegetables in butter until lightly browned.
  5. Add sautéed vegetables to soup. Stir in fresh parsley if desired.
  6. Season with salt and pepper.

These variations allow you to savor the rich tradition of Senate Bean Soup while tailoring it to your tastes.

A bowl of Senate Bean Soup with navy beans, ham hock, onions, and seasonings

Serving Suggestions and Garnishes

Accompany Senate Bean Soup with freshly baked biscuits, cornbread, or crusty bread for dipping. A crisp green salad or tangy coleslaw offers a refreshing contrast.

Garnish the soup with fresh herbs like chopped parsley or chives for a pop of color and flavor. Homemade croutons provide a delightful crunch, while grated Parmesan or aged cheddar lends a rich, umami boost. A dash of freshly cracked black pepper enhances the aroma and adds subtle heat.

A bowl of Senate Bean Soup garnished with fresh parsley, croutons, and grated cheese

Storage and Reheating

Once cooled, transfer Senate Bean Soup to an airtight container and refrigerate promptly for up to four days. For longer storage, freeze it in airtight containers or freezer bags for up to three months.

To thaw frozen soup, transfer it to the refrigerator overnight or place the container in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes until thawed.

For optimal reheating, warm the thawed soup slowly on the stove, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water or broth if needed to reach the desired consistency. Heat until simmering. Alternatively, microwave in a covered, microwave-safe bowl, stirring periodically, until hot throughout.

Senate Bean Soup stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator and freezer

Classic Senate Bean Soup Recipe


  • 1 pound dried navy beans
  • 3/4 pound smoked ham hock
  • 2 quarts cold water
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste


  1. Rinse beans and place in a pot with ham hock and water. Add baking soda if using.
  2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 hours, covered with lid ajar, until beans are soft.
  3. Remove ham hock, cool, and pull meat into bite-sized pieces, discarding bone.
  4. Sauté onion in butter until lightly browned. Add to soup with shredded ham.
  5. Bring to a boil, season with salt and pepper, and serve hot.

Nutritional Information:

  • Calories: 402
  • Total Fat: 11g
  • Saturated Fat: 4g
  • Cholesterol: 26mg
  • Sodium: 1070mg
  • Total Carbohydrates: 53g
  • Dietary Fiber: 16g
  • Sugars: 3g
  • Protein: 23g
A classic bowl of Senate Bean Soup made with navy beans and ham hock

Shortcut Senate Bean Soup Recipe


  • 4 15-ounce cans navy beans, undrained
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes (or 6 cups broth)
  • 1 smoked turkey leg
  • 1 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1 stick margarine or butter (1/2 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Simmer bouillon/broth with turkey leg for 30 minutes.
  2. Sauté onion, celery, and garlic in butter until lightly browned.
  3. Dice cooled turkey leg and add to broth with instant potatoes to thicken.
  4. Combine sautéed vegetables, beans, salt, and pepper with broth. Simmer for 30 minutes before serving.

Nutritional Information:

  • Calories: 445
  • Total Fat: 16g
  • Saturated Fat: 5g
  • Cholesterol: 42mg
  • Sodium: 1285mg
  • Total Carbohydrates: 58g
  • Dietary Fiber: 14g
  • Sugars: 4g
  • Protein: 21g
A quick and easy version of Senate Bean Soup made with canned beans and smoked turkey