Navy bean soup has been a fixture on the menu in the U.S. Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland. In 1903, Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho brought to passage a resolution–written by Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota–requiring that the soup be served every day to sustain the distinguished members of that august body through the vigorous throes of contentious deliberation.
The official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California.” The more perspicacious John Edgerton argues that this soup is a Southern recipe, pointing out the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as conclusive proof.
“Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina, Alabama, or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition.
“Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South.
“There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims.
Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy, or storm your way into the Capitol to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours.
Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in light oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of minced/grated celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. If you don’t serve cornbread with this, you’ll die and go to hell.