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Idaho’s Senate Bean Soup

How the University of Idaho Defended its Bean Honor

Post written by Aarika Dobbins

On Capitol Hill there is a cafeteria for US Senators where they can go to enjoy a meal in in the midst of their busy days. One of the most famous dishes on the menu is a navy bean and ham soup known as “Senate Bean Soup.” This soup has been served at the Senate cafeteria since 1891 and is famous mostly for the fact that it is the only dish there required by law to be on the menu daily.

While there are a few different origin stories of how the soup became a permanent item on the menu, the most widely accepted story attributes Fred Dubois, Idaho Senator from 1891 to 1897 and again from 1901 to 1907, as being the one to pass the resolution while he was serving as chair of the committee overseeing the Senate Restaurant.

Fred Dubois, Idaho State Senator
1891 – 1897 and 1901 – 1907
Fred Dubois, Idaho State Senator 1891 – 1897 and 1901 – 1907

Throughout the next few decades this soup became an example of creating good food at low cost during times of war rationing and the Great Depression. Many families made the soup regularly, particularly in Idaho where beans are a major crop in the agricultural industry.

Appreciation for this soup wasn’t shared by everyone, however, and on March 4, 1950 the Saturday Evening Post printed a column by journalist Kenneth Crawford in which he says “through all the years that I have covered the Senate, I have sustained myself in large part on this soup. It has got neither better nor worse, and still isn’t too good, but will, and my continued existence proves, sustain a thin spark of life.”

The World's Snootiest Beanery
The World's Snootiest Beanery

The attack on the beloved dish, as well as a founding politician of the state of Idaho, led to a public outcry in the state and and politicians from Idaho even made public statements admonishing Crawford’s comments. But the biggest response came from the University of Idaho’s Home Economics Department because, as the Idaho Statesman said on March 24, 1950, “no one criticizes a bean – or potato – dish without causing a rattling of pots and pans by the Idaho home economists.”

The article describes how UI Professor Adah Lewis and students in her cooking class decided to confront the issue. The original recipe for the soup was pretty meager: navy beans, water, onion, and mashed potatoes seasoned with some salt were the only ingredients. The soup served at the US Senate’s cafeteria omits the potatoes, but Dubois being a faithful Idahoan included them in his version of the soup.

Home Economic students improve receipe
Home Economic students improve receipe

While the students agreed that the original recipe was pleasant, Professor Lewis said “the majority of the class felt it was unfortunate that the excellent flavor of beans is submerged in the Dubois recipe. A new recipe developed in the class by Margaret Weber of Moscow and Bernadean Reece of Boise keeps the bean flavor intact and was voted superior even to the Dubois recipe which has stood the test of time.”

The students first made the soup according to the original recipe and then made it with variations in an effort to improve the flavor. The new recipe that was created by UI included garlic, celery, and parsley to improve the flavor without overpowering the beans.

Professor Adah Lewis (left) and students of the winning recipe Bernadean
Professor Adah Lewis (left) and students of the winning recipe Bernadean

When the improved recipe was finalized, it was submitted into the record by Idaho Representative Compton I. White as an alternative recipe. It is difficult to say when the old Dubois Recipe was replaced by the updated UI version, but today if you visit Senate Traditions you will find that the alternate recipe for the soup which includes potatoes is the updated version created by the University of Idaho Home Economics Department in 1950.

Students making Senate bean soup
Students making Senate bean soup

Want to try the soup? Here’s the recipe:

UI’s Senate Bean Soup

2 ½ quarts of water

5 ounces sliced ham hock or chunk of bacon or a mixture of the two

1 ½ cups washed navy soup beans

3 tablespoons diced onion

1 cup diced potatoes

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

2 tablespoons celery

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

pepper if desired

Directions: Braise onions in butter. Mix all ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Cover and simmer slowly for 2 ½ hours.

Students prep ingredients for Senate bean soup
Students prep ingredients for Senate bean soup


Author unknown. (1950, March 4). Two Decades of Bean Soup. Saturday Evening Post, 22(36), p116.

Crawford, Kenneth. (1950, March 4). The World’s Snootiest Beanery. Saturday Evening Post, 22(36), p106-p111.

New Bean Soup Recipe Developed. (1950, March 24) The Idaho Statesman, page 9.

PG 101 Gem of the Mountains photograph collection, 1948-1968

People Given Idaho’s Bean Soup Secrets. (1950, March 22) The Times-News, page 11.

United States Senate. (n.d.). About Traditions & Symbols – Senate Bean Soup. Retrieved March 6, 2024.

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