AN HOMAGE TO BEAN SOUP
Everett Dirksen, the late Republican Senator from Illinois, wrote three years before his death in 1966 that, “It was many years ago that a very dignified and slightly belligerent senator took himself to the Senate Dining Room to order bean soup, only to discover that there was no bean soup on the menu. This dereliction on the part of the Senate Dining Room cooks called for an immediate declaration of war. So the senator promptly introduced a resolution to the effect that henceforth not a day should pass, when the Senate was in session and the restaurant open, that there would not be bean soup on the menu. It has, therefore, become an inviolate practice and a glorious tradition that the humble little bean should always be honored.”
The politician to whom Dirksen referred may have been the Speaker of the House, Joseph G. Cannon, also a Republican from Illinois, who died in 1926. On a hot, humid Washington summer day in 1904 the Speaker arrived for lunch and learned that the soup was unavailable. “Thunderation,” he roared, “I had my mind set for bean soup. From now on, hot or cold, rain, snow or shine, I want it on the menu every day!” A resolution was introduced in 1907 by Senator Knute Nellson of Minnesota, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which decreed that, while the Senate is in session, no day should pass without bean soup on the Senate restaurant menu. Henceforth, Senate bean soup has appeared on the menu at all eleven Congressional dining rooms every day regardless of weather. It is the most popular item on the menu and is commonly recommended to guests by members of Congress.
Every day, that is, with one exception. On September 14, 1943, rationing during World War II left the kitchen without sufficient navy beans to make the soup. The Washington Times-Herald reported the absence and, according to a speech made on the Senate floor in 1988 by Bob Dole, Republican Senator from Kansas and bean soup aficionado, “Somehow, by the next day, more beans were found and bowls of bean soup have been ladled up without interruption ever since.”
According to the official United States Senate website, two recipes for this culinary necessity exist. One calls for mashed potatoes and one, thankfully, does not. But both are politically correct, plain, hearty fare, calling for navy beans, onions and a ham hock, and intending to send voters the message that their lawmakers are just simple, small-town folk. The soup is sometimes available to the general public at the Capitol Visitor Center Restaurant.
Notwithstanding comments about Congress being full of beans, or about the high winds on Capitol Hill, Everett Dirksen may have the best explanation what bean soup means to the Senate. He continues, “There is much to be said for the succulent little bean …. Not only is it high in nourishment, but it is particularly rich in that nutritious value referred to as protein – the stuff that imparts energy and drive to the bean eater and particularly the senators who need this sustaining force when they prepare for a long speech on the Senate floor. I venture the belief that the marathon speakers of Senate…. (some) of whom have spoken well in excess of twenty hours and felt no ill effects, would agree the little bean had much to do with this sustained torrent of oratory.”