My dog Wally and I were at the beach for the first two weeks of November. I stayed in the same little condo I have been renting for many years now, on Dewey Beach in Delaware. This late in the year, the beach itself was largely deserted and most of the shops on the strip closed, though you could still get a crabcake at Woody’s and a Bloody Mary at the Starboard, and down in Rehoboth things were lively — but deserted was what I came for. Though at certain hours, we were glad to find a few Dalmatians and spaniels and poodles ambling along the water’s edge, their people attached.

I have always loved big, empty spaces, indoors as well as out: lofts, warehouses, airplane-hangar type nightclubs when no one is there. There was one of those called the Acropolis in Austin in the 1990s in which I would have gladly set up housekeeping if I could. I actually did live in an abandoned factory in Berlin for a while. The beginning of my love affair with Texas was its big, big sky, and when I first set eyes on the prairie in Kansas, it seemed at least as beautiful to me as the mountains and forests that get so much more hype and attention. As lovely as they may be, forests and mountains make me a little nervous. I like flat, and open. The beach fills me with calm.

It wasn’t only the fact that all the people and their accessories were gone that made Dewey so beautiful in late autumn, though it helped. The angle of the light and the quality of the air was different, and the straightforwardness of summer weather (good/bad) was replaced by many gradations and moods.

Hyperaware of the wind, the clouds, the temperature, the tides and, of course, the sunrise and sunset, I spent half my time consulting the weather app on my phone and half the time outside taking pictures of the sky. I took a ridiculous number of pictures of the sky, eventually realizing that while sunrise and sunset are the drama queens, there are subtle beauties at every time of day you almost have to put a frame around to see. I spent three-quarters of my time reading, a quarter of my time writing book reviews, a quarter walking the dog, and at least a third on activities related to eating. As you can see, I had much more time than usual.

Half the time I was alone, half the time I had guests. When my sister came at the beginning and when my neighbor Pam came at the end, the beautiful solitude was replaced by beautiful togetherness. Also, I sometimes stopped to chat with other dog walkers, quickly steering the conversation to my favorite topic — what restaurants do you like around here — as our dogs mysteriously determined whether they were instant pals or mortal enemies.

Wally stops to smell the roses; Elvis looks on.

This year, I also started trying to find out where all these gay people I’ve always heard so much about are, which resulted in my going to drag shows on two consecutive Saturday nights.

I have been attracted to drag shows since I was a girl, and tried to get in to see one at the El Moroccan Room in Asbury Park. I was both underage and wearing flip-flops; in those days, gay bars often had rules against open-toed shoes. Eventually, though, I somehow managed to catch the sets of breathtaking Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Crawford impersonators, and came out well and truly dazzled by the ferocious charisma of six-foot-tall firecats in size 17 pumps with names like Celia Lips and Tamara Nite. As I remember it, someone really sang, rather than lip-synched, Over the Rainbow. Though in truth this memory is so ancient and tattered, it’s well into the land of magical realism, or at least autofiction.

The Pines and the Blue Moon both have weekend drag shows. And they are free!

Drag shows are entertaining and silly, but these days they feel welcoming and sort of moving to me, not so unlike the beach. In the weeks since I went, I have been dreaming of tall, slender, benevolent characters with long hair and multiple personalities. I knew someone like you once, I said to one of them. Did I mean my first husband? Probably. At the show at The Pines, we accidentally became part of the celebration of the seventieth birthday of what must be one of the area’s leading lesbians, with tables full of wiry, silver-haired women stuffing bills down the drag queens’ cleavage, a charming throwback to the good old days of gender fluidity. There was a big green sheet cake decorated like a tennis court, with a figurine of the birthday girl perched on the edge, her opponent across the net lying flat on her face. LOVE-70, it said. This evening was so much fun and I remember at least two-thirds of it. The lemon drop shots, apparently a tradition at The Pines, got the other third.

For years I have dined like a tourist in the Rehoboth area, eschewing restaurants on the highway for those closer to the beach. Finally, though, I went to find out why the parking lot at the Big Fish Grill is always so full. It had come up over and over in my man-on-the-street interviews and the time had come.

It is a huge place, with several rooms and three bars. I love the service you get at a bar, and often prefer it to a table if I’m with just one other person. Here the countertop was unusually wide, made of granite, and the friendly female bartender set out placemats and silverware for us. There was a gay couple seated nearby whom I determined were longtime locals and eventually subjected to the restaurant interview. Down the bar an older man was dining alone, which looked appealing. I keep thinking I’m going to try it, but I have a hard time leaving the dog when I’m on my own.

We ordered sort of crazily, this and that from all over the menu, but the star of the show was the pumpkin crab bisque. I would never have ordered it — I was sure it would be just another pumpkin spice abomination, like the hummus and the dog shampoo and the vodka. Fortunately my friend Pam had no such qualms. It truly was to die. The best thing with pumpkin I have ever eaten, by a wide margin. I thought my many persuasive and sycophantic emails would convince the Big Fish Grill to send me their recipe so I could make it for Thanksgiving, and also run it here, but no dice. After being ignored for a while, I was curtly informed that they don’t give out that recipe. Phooey, as my mother used to say. I’ve rooted around the internet and I think what I’ve posted below will be close; I’m going to try it at my sister’s this week. If you feel similarly inspired, be careful with the spices, you want them in the background.

This year I am giving thanks for dachshunds, drag queens, deliciousness, desertedness, pet-friendly rentals on Dewey Beach, and the ever-present, ever-changing, ever-spectacular sky.

Big Fish Grill-Adjacent Pumpkin Crab Bisque (I Think)

1 15 oz. can pumpkin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic and 1/4 cup yellow onion minced small
4 cups broth (vegetable, seafood, or chicken)
1/2 cup cream (I will use half and half but I’m sure they use heavy)
1 cup or more lump crab
salt and pepper to taste

1. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large stock pot over medium heat and sauté garlic and onion for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant and tender.
2.  Add pumpkin, spices, broth and cream to the pot. Bring to a low simmer, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 20-25 minutes. Season to taste.
3. Warm crab meat with reserved tablespoon of butter on stove or brief microwave.
4.  Divide crab into bowls and pour soup over.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

4 replies on “November at the Beach, with Drag Queens”

  1. In the summers of 1982 and 1983 the Blue Moon was THE place to be. Delicious food in the restaurant gay (men) scene in the bar. Rehoboth and Dewey felt like a secret, tho welcoming club in those summers.

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