Senate Bean Soup

senate dining 2

One of the great cliches in Washington DC goes something like this:

“You can tell Congress is out of session.”


“The weather has cooled off…no more hot air coming off the Hill.”

(cue Rim-Shot, Cymbal)

If you ask me, while bloviating and grandstanding may be the source of the hot air, there is also the possibility that the favorite lunch chow of Congress could be to blame. Bean Soup, an olde-timey bowl of beans and ham, has been on the menu in the Senate and House cafeterias for over 100 years. In the Senate, it is known as “Senate Bean Soup,” to add distinction to a dish that is otherwise as bland as the institution.

Each side has official recipes, resolved perhaps by a conference committee. Like all good ideas, the soup originated in the House of Representatives.

Jos. G. Cannon, 4/3/14  (LOC)

The story of the arrival of Bean Soup on the permanent smorgasbord of the House and Senate would be laughable if it was not so sad. Speaker Joe Cannon, a powerful political boss in his day, had a hankering for the steamy bowl of ham hock and white beans. Being August in Washington, the chef that day decided to perhaps pull the thick, pasty napalm from the menu, for fear of causing hyperthermia in the already sunsoaked staffers. Cannon, upon arriving in the cafeteria and discovering his favorite food missing, erupted:

“Thunderation!” he bellowed. (What a phrase!)

From that moment on, the Speaker decreed under his personal privilege in such matters, that Bean Soup would reign on the menu for eternity. Imagine his modern successors making such a declaration. What (more) contempt might we hold if Speaker Boehner declared every day “Cincinnati Chili” day, or if Mitch McConnell in the Senate side of things demanded that his native Kentucky Fried Critters be served every day! Not to be outdone, the US Senate followed suit shortly after Cannon’s decree, adding the dish to the menu as well.

If you wish to dine as a Senator or Speaker, any citizen can find their way to the soup. The most posh way to enjoy the soup is with an invitation to the Senate Dining Room, reserved for Senators, VIPs, and campaign donors (who make the request, of course.) A bowl of the soup will run $6.00 in the dining hall. If you are not a crony or lackey, fear not, the soup is still accessible to the plebeian class. In both the Capitol Visitors Center, the Longworth House Cafeteria and the Senate Dirksen Cafeteria, a bowl can be had for $3.25.

As for my own partaking, I took mine usually in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Building, near Union Station. The Senate and House Office Buildings offer numerous services to the staff who work long hours wrecking serving the American people. Long before the development of the food court, food truck or shopping mall, the basements of the office buildings provided every need to the staff–printing services, barber shop, banking, postal services, and cafeterias. They still do, in fact. Walking first through security in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building (hilariously shortened to Russell, SOB on the signage) then though the corridor, past the barber shop, through a subterranean tunnel and then into the Dirksen Dining Hall. Technically for staffers, it is open to the public.

And how does this manna taste? The soup is now produced by some contractor, set alongside tomato bisque, chowders, and chicken noodle. It is a dated, old fashioned food concept. Bulky, protein-laden. Swampy and steaming like a DC summer. The antidote to the winter doldrums, but only a sadist would eat this density in summertime. The soup is simple fare. White beans, some mashed to thicken the broth, float in cloudy water. Smoked ham, thoroughly boiled and deracinated from the hock, join the party. Onions, mere onions, add depth. Like a Japanese dish, the construction is elegant in its simplicity, but that simplicity may be taken as boredom by the modern palate. Nonetheless, eating Senate Bean Soup is like learning history through your taste buds.

On a more spiritual level, I am convinced that Senate Bean Soup is a symbol, a metaphor worthy of Dan Brown. How? It is approximately 100 old white farts (or 435 on the House side) rolling in pork fat.

Senate Bean Soup in the Dining Room: Photo credit: saikofish / / CC BY-NC-SA

Speaker Joe Cannon Photo credit: The Library of Congress /,3906677

Senators in the Bowl by TJ Kozak at


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