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In The Nation's Capital, A Signature Soup Stays On The Menu

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. House and Senate thrive on customs, many of which date back to the early days of the Republic. Here's one practice of the world greatest deliberative body that has nothing to do with governance - soup. Lauren Ober from member station WAMU explains.

LAUREN OBER, BYLINE: Here in Washington D.C., there's a signature soup that you don't really find elsewhere.

BETTY KOED: What we know is, around 1904, Senate bean soup shows up. And it's been on the Senate menu ever since that time.

OBER: Betty Koed is the associate historian at the U.S. Senate, and it's her job to know about the governing body's various traditions, from the fanciful seersucker Thursday, to the candy desk on the Senate floor.

KOED: The Senate as an institution is very respectful of its history, of its tradition and its precedents.

OBER: The soup's origin story is a little murky. That's because there are two tales split down party lines. The first suggest that in 1903, Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Dubois demanded that bean soup be available every day. Koed says another story pins it to Republican Senator Newt Nelson of Minnesota, who supposedly made a similar request a year later.

OK, now, have you had the Senate bean soup before in the cafeteria here?

KOED: I have (laughter). I'm not a big bean soup fan, so I can't say it's my favorite soup, but it's not bad.

OBER: Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The soup's original recipe only has about five ingredients - navy beans, ham hocks, onions, butter and water with some salt and pepper to taste. And it's been on the Senate menu every day but one for 110 years.

KOED: There was one time in the 1940s during World War II when they actually went a day without bean soup because there was food rationing going on and they ran out of their ration of beans.

OBER: If the soup has been on the Senate menu for more than a century, it must be popular, right? Wrong, if the diners in the Dirksen Senate cafeteria are any indication.

Have you ever had the bean soup?

The woman I ask shakes her head no.

Like, you wouldn't even - you wouldn't try it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I prefer the vegetarian, so (laughter)...

OBER: OK. All right.

The next person I ask about the soup also has never had it.

I've been standing here for, like, 20 minutes and nobody - nobody has had any of it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, on this one (laughter)?

OBER: Yeah. Have you ever had it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No. I've never had any of their soups.

OBER: Finally, I get an answer for why none of the diners in the Dirksen cafeteria are eating the bean soup.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I think it's for tourists. Employees don't want to have that one.

OBER: And so I pop over to a place with a bit more tourist foot traffic, the restaurant in the Capitol visitors center, which also serves Senate bean soup. There, I find Linda McGee, who's visiting from Boston with her family. She got a bowl for lunch.

LINDA MCGEE: Never had it before. It's my first time.

OBER: She tries a spoonful.

MCGEE: It's very good. It's a little salty, but it is good. Yeah.

OBER: Regardless of whether Senate bean soup is only eaten by tourists, Betty Koed says, it's not going anywhere.

KOED: Because the Senate has this deep respect for tradition. It'll probably be there for a long time to come.

OBER: Even if no one in the Senate actually eats it. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Ober in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.