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Senate Bean Soup: A Bipartisan Favorite Served 100 Years

Washington Post photo

Senate Bean Soup is made by chef Don Perez, who admits to adding garlic to the 100- year-old recipe.

By JENNIFER FREY

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Today we’re here to honor bean soup.

To mark this momentous occasion — the 100th anniversary of Senate Bean Soup, that Capitol culinary stalwart, always on the menu, senatorial in its dignified sameness — we have invited lawmaker Carl Levin of the esteemed navy-bean-producing state of Michigan to accompany us to the Senate Dining Room for a bowl of the stuff.

Except it’s hot outside. Sticky hot. Bean soup is the sort of thing you might crave on a cold January Monday. Simple, hearty stuff for a day that calls for a dose of thick, filling warmth. This is gazpacho weather. Cool cucumber soup weather.

But this is the Senate, proud producer of so much hot air. Bean soup it must be.

Levin is positively chipper about this outing, despite that he normally visits the Senate Dining Room maybe twice a year. He’s not exactly a lunching-out kind of guy. Give him a sandwich at his desk.

A soup guy, though? That he is.

“I love soup!” he says merrily, walking through the underground maze that connects the various Capitol office buildings with the Capitol itself. “My wife says I could eat soup every day! All kinds of soup! Any kind of soup!”

And this soup, well, it’s his patriotic duty! It is made, exclusively, from Michigan navy beans. That’s the way the original recipe was written, and it has never been changed. He did not know this before, but he most assuredly does now, having been briefed for this lunch by a staffer with a four-page memo, complete with eight pages of attachments, about ... Senate Bean Soup, House Bean Soup and the history of beans.

The history of Senate Bean Soup is muddled, though important enough to produce an entire file in the Senate archives. Two senators are alternately credited with the mandatory inclusion of the soup on the Senate dining menu, where it has remained, steadfast, since 1903, the only permanent menu fixture. First, there is Fred Dubois of Idaho, a bean soup devotee who is said to have pushed through a resolution to that effect while chairman of the committee in charge of the Senate restaurant — but no one has ever located any evidence of that resolution. Then there is Knute Nelson of Minnesota, a bean soup lover from his Civil War days who is said to have insisted on seeing his favorite on the daily menu.

(There is also the tale of House Speaker Joe Cannon, who reportedly forced bean soup onto the permanent House Dining Room menu in 1904 after discovering there was none to be had. “Thunderation!” he hollered. “I had my mouth set for bean soup. From now on, hot or cold, rain, snow, or shine, I want it on the menu every day.” But that is House soup, and we are talking Senate soup here, so let us not digress.)

Whatever the truth, the soup has been served in the Senate Dining Room every single day for 100 years — save one. As recounted by Bob Dole in a “Bicentennial Minute” oration he gave on the Senate floor in 1988, the Washington Times Herald reported on Sept. 15, 1943, that on the previous day bean soup was not available: Wartime rations had left the kitchen lacking the necessary Michigan navy beans.

“Somehow,” Dole said, “by the next day, more beans were found and bowls of bean soup have been ladled up without interruption ever since.”

Not that all the senators eat it. Levin admits, without hesitation, that he’s never had the official Senate version before. In the dining room with his guests, Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., seems quite put out when asked if he has ordered bean soup — on a day when New England clam chowder happened to be on the menu.

“I’m from Boston!” Kennedy blusters. “I’m a clam chowder guy. The bean soup lost out 3-0 at my table today.”

There was Spark Matsunaga, D-Hawaii, who was legendary for reserving the big center table in the dining room just about every day of his 14-year Senate career and for ordering the bean soup for himself and his guests every time. But he passed away in 1990.

Longtime server Leila Dais (she has been around for 40 years, albeit with a sabbatical in the 1990s) furrows her brow when asked which senators take the soup these days.

“Not many of them,” she says. “Not the ones who order from me.”

Thankfully, though, here is Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., happy to promote the soup her husband memorialized on the Senate floor.

“I love it!” she declares. “I had it yesterday!”

Dole has her own soup story: Shortly after she returned to Washington to join the Senate, she invited her staff out to her house for a party. For refreshments she served Senate Bean Soup in the traditional Senate Bean Soup mug (red, white and blue, with the recipe printed on the side), which became a party favor to take home.

“They loved it!” she says.

Yes, they love it — the visitors anyway. Don Perez, the dining room’s executive chef, has been cooking it for the past 12 years. He moves about 30 to 35 gallons a day — and fields endless requests on how he makes it from tourists who are being treated to lunch by their senators.

“I sell a lot of it,” says Perez, who makes the soup for the formal Senate Dining Room (where you must be a guest of a senator to dine), the private Senate dining room (where you must be a senator, period, to dine) and the public Senate cafeteria (where any old tourist can eat).

It’s hard to be certain, looking at Perez’s inscrutable face, if his patrons’ hunger for this particular soup is a good thing or not. After all, a 1970s Senate chef, Jay Treadwell, once declared in the pages of this newspaper that bean soup was his “nemesis of all time,” a blight on a menu that included, among other things, his “Veal Emincee w/Cucumbers.”

Only Perez or one other chef — Roberto Canizares, who preceded him and taught him the recipe — makes the soup every day. (“We’re the only ones who can make it consistent,” Perez says.) The recipe calls for Michigan navy beans, water, ham hocks, onion, butter, salt and pepper. Perez admits to adding a little garlic into the mix, but no one has called him on it yet. He knows that you do not mess with the senators’ soup. A little carrot for color? Forget it. Celery? Never! And don’t dare drizzle a bit of creme fraiche over the top! Jazz up the presentation? Not a chance.

“The senators,” he says, solemnly, “like their soup straightforward.”

As so we await the verdict as Levin digs into his first official bowl: “It tastes the way [bean soup] always tastes,” he pronounces. “It has a rich flavor that makes you feel good about the world. Robust. Down home. Consistent.”

Levin didn’t grow up in a bean soup house. Brisket and beans, that’s how his navies came to the table. That was one of his mother’s specialties. That said, he has had his share of bean soup in his lifetime. He is from Michigan.

Alas, research now shows that North Dakota has surpassed Michigan as the biggest bean-producing state in the nation. This is, perhaps, a blow to the heart of Levin’s constituency, but it means nothing when it comes to the soup. Michigan beans it always will be.

“The flavor is really consistent,” Levin says. He is tipping his soup mug now, scraping out the last savory bits. Lunch is here, ready to be served.

He is having the meatloaf.

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