Sunday, March 13, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: District of Columbia I - The most boring soup in the world

I know DC is not a state. But it certainly must not be ignored. The capital city of the United States of America holds a special place for me. My parents drove us down from Baltimore to see the Smithsonian on so many occasions when I was a kid. I find myself there often these days for museum visits, soccer games and Americana galore - plus the Mid-Atlantic's most diverse LGBT community (sorry Charm City). Its rich culture has to have something unique food-wise, yes? It is that something that I am trying to find for this post.

Snacking State-by-State: District of Columbia

Official Name: District of Columbia
Is it a State? Nope - it's a Federal District
District Nicknames: DC, the District
Formation: September 9, 1781 (as the Territory of Columbia). Officially became the District of Columbia on February 27, 1801, carved out of the original Washington County, Maryland; Georgetown, Maryland; and Alexandria County & City, Virginia - the last of which have since retroceded back to Virginia)
Important City: Only one, really: Washington
Region: Mid-Atlantic, South, Northeast; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Chestnut, Crabcake
Bordered by: Maryland (northeast, southeast, northwest), Virginia & the Potomac River (southwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: none - not even "American food" or "apple pie"
Some Famous & Typical Foods: also none really - except US Senate Bean Soup; is very easy to find just about any food in DC, from every region of the country and most countries around the world.

It would be a cop-out to devote the District post to "typical American food" (whatever that is). The whole point of this series is to suss out "typical American food". The District of Columbia, including Prince George's, Montgomery & the various Northern Virginia Counties, has a wide variety of foods and cuisines, and has become an international food city in its own right. Or at least a national one, if the folks at Top Chef can be believed. One way to tackle this variety is to highlight recipes from famous restaurants. Note, for example, the locally famous Ben's Chili Bowl, perhaps one of the most famous restaurants in DC. Though I haven't had the chance to eat there, so many people have, from President Barack Obama to Bill Cosby (apparently the only person allowed to eat there for free).

Perhaps a more famous recipe comes right from the kitchen of the United States Congress cafeteria. Served every day, United States Senate Bean Soup has been made for over 100 years. As the US Senate website notes, there are a few stories about the origin of this soup.

According to one story, the Senate’s bean soup tradition began early in the 20th-century at the request of Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho. Another story attributes the request to Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota, who expressed his fondness for the soup in 1903. [United States Senate, 2006]
Closer to the present, Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) claims that this very "inside-the-Beltway" soup is a fave of the citizens of his home state. This comes as little surprise, because Nebraska is a major source for the Great Northern Beans that are featured in the recipe. It;s also because it's not the most exciting soup in the world (Ooooh, dig! Well not really, ye Nebraskans in cyberspace. Most Midwesterners I've talked to agree: outside of Chicago, Midwestern food is pretty darn bland, at least in the prairie states).

Instead of using Senator Nelson's Nebraska recipe (I'm not doing my Nebraska post until next year), I wanted to just throw this in the crock pot and call it a night. Fortunately, I found a recipe in my copy of Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. This ended up as the recipe I used first for this post.

The recipe: US Senate Bean Soup

For this soup, Hensperger and Kaufmann recommend the following ingredients, which are not all thrown in together at once:

* 1 pound of dry navy beans (about $1; they recommend soaking them overnight but I was just fine soaking them for half an hour)
* 1 ham hock (a 1 1/2 lb package was about $3)
* 2 onions (about $1 or so)
* 3 potatoes (about $2 or so)
* parsley (I used dried - I was out of the fresh stuff)
* salt and pepper

Note that their recipe also calls for celery. I didn't have this on hand, but threw in a cubed carrot instead. I also had planned to add a little butter, as many recipes recommend, but left it out in the end.

* Though I don't usually include this in the list of ingredients, it should go without saying that you need water - lots of water. I used about 8 cups.

Put the following in the slow cooker for an hour on high: the beans, the ham hock and just enough water to cover them. After that, drain the water and add everything else but the salt, pepper and parsley.

Cook it all on low for 8 to 10 hours - I did this overnight.

At which time it will look like this.

Add the rest of the ingredients and cook for 15 minutes more on low, and then remove the ham hock, taking the meat off of it and stirring it back into the soup.

Serve it with buttered bread - the authors recommend garlic bread.

I hate to say this, but this recipe was bland - very, very bland. It is possible that I undersalted it, though it probably still would have been bland. I do not know what the folks at the Congressional cafeteria do to make this any more interesting, so I played with a few ideas:

* I added adding thyme and rosemary along with the salt before heating it up.
* chunks of avocado give it a nice flavor and texture, no matter what else you put into it
* sriracha sauce ended up being my go-to condiment for this soup. Put in as much or as little as you like. It gives it a zing that the early US Senate chefs (and Sen. Nelson of Nebraska) probably wouldn't have imagined.


Cowen, Tyler. "How do Maryland and Virginia differ?" Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide, February 7, 2011.

Hensperger, Beth, and Julie Kaufmann. Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook. Harvard Common Press: Boston, 2005.

Kojo Nnamdi Show, The. "The D.C. Area's Unique (?) Cultural Identity". WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, originally aired January 3, 2011.

Martínez, Rubén. "Salvadoran Coleslaw". Gourmet (reprinted through's "Gourmet on Epi"), September 2007.

Nelson, Ben. "Senate Bean Soup: A Nebraska Favorite". Official website for Ben Nelson, US Senator for Nebraska, January 3, 2006.

Quackenbush, Tammy (Tamar1973). "Korean potato salad". Posted on YouTube, May 3, 2009.

Zewdie, Senedu, with Stephanie Sedgwick. "Doro Wat". Washington Post, May 18, 2005.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "District of Columbia" page and other pages. Regrettably, the Food Timeline State Foods webpage has little to say about the District. Sigh. Still no representation.


Mycala said...

You mentioned ham hocks! Where on earth does one find a ham hock in this area? (Towson) I've found something that looks like one at Klein's in Jacksonville, but it sure isn't the same thing as the ham hocks I used to get in Pennsylvania. The ones I used to get up home smelled good while they were simmering, this thing smelled like... well. I'll spare you the details. I've looked high and low. Where did you find yours?

John said...

I have found them at Giant and at Harris Teeter recently. If you hunt for them they're actually not too difficult to find. Don't know if they'll be the same quality, but they're ham hocks!