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Chef Takes On a Soup-er Tradition

Local foodies often complain that Washington lacks an iconic dish. There’s no definitive answer to Philadelphia’s cheesesteak, Baltimore’s crab cake or New York’s pizza.

But Capitol Hill does have a signature culinary creation: Senate bean soup. The concoction is a familiar (and according to one apocryphal legend, legislatively mandated) presence in Capitol cafeterias, a recipe known so far and wide that it’s been canonized everywhere from the classic “Joy of Cooking” to the Food Network. It’s even stocked in cans on grocery store shelves. 

But sometimes even the sturdiest of institutions need a makeover. One newcomer to the Hill’s restaurant scene is giving the famous dish new life. At the Chesapeake Room on Barracks Row, chef Robert Wood serves an adaptation of the Senate’s favorite dish that tweaks tradition with upscale flair. In Wood’s hands, the classic combination of white beans, ham and broth becomes an elegant, silky creation that retains the best qualities of the more rustic, homey version with which most diners are familiar. 

Wood, a Savannah, Ga., native, says he learned of the legendary dish while developing the Chesapeake Room’s menu. The restaurant, as its name implies, celebrates the gastronomy of the mid-Atlantic, and many of Wood’s dishes feature locally sourced ingredients. But in the case of the Senate soup, it was the dish itself that was practically native. 

Wood heard the stories of the soup’s legendary history and was instantly hooked. Lore has it that Congress passed a law mandating that the soup be served in the cafeterias. But according to the Senate historian’s office, the ubiquity of the soup is merely a custom, not a legislative requirement. 

Various stories point to either Sen. Fred Dubois (R-Idaho) or Sen. Knute Nelson (R-Minn.) as the man responsible for introducing the tradition in the early 1900s of serving the soup daily. 

No matter the soup’s origin, Wood says he was drawn to its status as the official unofficial food of many of his customers. “But I wanted to refine it, to make it my own,” he says. 

That starts with smoking his own bacon to use as the soup’s meaty backbone. (The version in the cafeterias employs ham hocks.) Wood turns out about 50 pounds a week, prepared in the restaurant’s kitchen over apple and cherry wood. He uses Maryland pork when it’s available. (Insert joke about Senate pork spending here.)

Wood swapped the traditional navy beans for cannellinis (he says they impart a creamier texture) cooked to softness in house-made chicken stock. And here’s where the soup takes a leap from cafeteria staple to restaurant delicacy: The beans are puréed and strained for smoothness and then finished with a small splash of cream. A swirl of herb-laced olive oil adds a visual punch and a verdant flavor. 

Wood’s take on the dish has plenty of happy constituents. It’s one of the more popular items on the menu — and one of the few constants among the selection of dishes, most of which change with the season. 

Some modern-day Senators have sampled the goods and given their expert votes of approval. “They’re Senators,” he says. “So if they like it, I must be doing something right.”

So if Congress ever does get around to passing a bean-soup bill, there might be an amendment making sure it’s Wood’s recipe that becomes the law of the land.

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