By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but in his enduring classic Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (Chapel Hill: 1993), John Egerton, the governing genius of Southern culinary matters, claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that 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” (of course he would).
Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or 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, with justice. Fortunately for us run-of-the-mill citizens, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup, which like all bean soups is a wonderful dish for cold winter nights. Here’s my recipe. It’s not official by any stretch, but it’s warm and wonderful, all the same.
Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water and simmer until beans are quite soft, adding water as needed. This will take about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool, then debone, remove most of the rind, chop the meat and a bit of the rind and add back to the beans, ensuring you have enough water to cover. Sauté one finely-chopped large white onion with one or two minced cloves of garlic, according to your tastes, in vegetable oil (not olive, not butter!) and add to beans, . You can add a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. I often use a ham bone left over from the holidays for this soup, and it’s good, too. Simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. Serve with cornbread, of course.