The bar is admittedly low, but the shrimp tree — that Christmas tree-shaped assemblage of cooked shrimp, edible greenery, toothpicks, and styrofoam — is maybe the holiest of the unholy creations of 1970s American dining, an era when fish mousses in the shapes of fish, salads with hot dog crowns, and all sorts of aspics reigned supreme.
While only the kitschiest among us have revived those unsettling fringe foods, the shrimp tree appears to have transcended back into the mainstream, making the rounds this holiday season not as vintage pictures shared in horrified awe but as real-life, party centerpieces.
Almost overnight, my feed has gone from zero to shrimp tree: three shrimp trees from In Style beauty director Lauren Valenti; a shrimp tree from home design creator Dani Colding; a shrimp tree from New York Times Cooking editor Tanya Sichynsky; and another from food creator Emily Phillips. In fact, when I sussed out the shrimp tree’s potential resurgence in Eater’s Slack, my colleague Kaitlin Bray mentioned that she had just encountered one at a holiday party; it was popular enough to require frequent refills, she noted.
The nexus of the current trend is likely, as with many food trends of late, the private chef and content creator Meredith Hayden of Wishbone Kitchen. Hayden featured a bow-topped shrimp-and-kale tree in a video she posted in early December. The video, a partnership with the fashion brand Tory Burch, has 10.4 million views as of this writing and earned a follow-up video showing the tree’s assembly (1.2 million views). The people are rapt, and who can blame them?
Replying to @Gwyneth • グウェネス shrimp tree tutorial♬ original sound - wishbonekitchen
The return of the shrimp tree also makes sense given the recent boom of ’70s desserts in restaurants, a trend that writer Ella Quittner attributes to both nostalgia and an embrace of effortful, sometimes tedious entertaining. The shrimp tree is similar in this regard: It offers no pretense of effortlessness, just over-the-top, ridiculous celebration for the sake of it. Of course, croquembouche, that other towering food of a previous era, is also on the rise at artsy food events.
Shrimp cocktail, while never really having left the American dining scene, has also gotten the spotlight plenty this year. In a year of food maximalism, shrimp cocktail has become synonymous with today’s splurge-y dining culture as well as the loud, kitschy food fashion that continues to trend. We see a seed of the current moment in the work of designer Susan Alexandra: A 2020 Instagram post features her popular beaded shrimp cocktail earrings arranged into a vintagey shrimp tree.
In December 1974, Bon Appétit featured a tree of shrimp and olives as part of a Christmas spread. When the publication revisited the recipe in 2013 for a nostalgic, archives-focused column, it concluded: “The whole thing is atrocious, but in an amazing way.” Thankfully, 10 years later, we just think it’s amazing.