What Are Navy Beans?
- Used in Boston baked beans, a quintessential American dish
- Found in Senate Bean Soup, on the menu daily in the U.S. Senate’s restaurant
- Similar in flavor and texture to Great Northern beans
The Navy Bean Story
Also called “white pea” or alubias chica in Spanish, the navy bean is a variety of common bean, which originated in Peru several thousand years ago. Why “Navy”? Because of their super-charged nutritional value, low cost, and long storage life, in the 19th century the U.S. Navy began issuing these beans as standard ration for sailors on their warships.
A common method for preparing navy beans is to bake them. The United States, Britain, and Canada (with its French tradition of the cassoulet) have a long history of baking beans. Baked beans are so popular in the historic East Coast city of Boston that it’s called “Bean Town.”
An interesting Navy Bean tradition is found in Washington, D.C., in the restaurant of the U.S. Senate: Senate Bean Soup has been on the menu every day since about 1903, as the story goes. The origin of this tradition is not completely clear: Some say that it was begun by Idaho Senator Fred Dubois in the early 20th century, while others say that Minnesota Senator Knute Nelson is responsible. Dubois’ recipe called for mashed potatoes, but the soup served today calls for braised onion.
Navy beans are also used in a Hungarian bean soup called bab leves and in a Serbian bean soup called pasulj. As baked beans, they are delicious when flavored with barbecue sauce or chipotle pepper seasoning.