Why The Shrimp Tree Is The Ultimate Holiday Appetizer

Shrimp appetizers on a pineapple
PHOTO: STANCIUC/GETTY IMAGES

Of the countless holiday memories I’ve acquired over the years, images of shrimp cocktail abound, dancing like sugar plums amongst the presents and people.  

That’s probably because for as long as I can remember, Christmas in my family has included dueling shrimp cocktail appetizers. One timeless and simple, and the other retro and showy.     

The flashy shrimp is on my father’s side of the family. His older sister Linda has hosted Christmas Eve at her house for half a century, and for the past 40 of those, my dad has been responsible for bringing the shrimp tree. His shrimp tree—a relic of cookbook horrors gone by—consists of small shrimp affixed to a whole pineapple with cocktail toothpicks. The result is a bit of a showpiece. Interactive and unique, it’s always a hit. And even when it was out of style, he kept making it.

My dad isn’t clear on the how or why of the Christmas shrimp tree. He says that Auntie Linda started making them for Christmas Eve, and at some point, that job fell to him. Knowing my dad, he probably appreciated the novelty of the shrimp-encrusted pineapple and volunteered for the responsibility. And, as my father assured me in a recent phone call about the legendary appetizer, it’s also terribly “easy” to make. The hardest part, he insists, is finding the right size shrimp. 

“Find a shrimp cocktail recipe you like,” he explains. “Peel and devein the shrimp but leave the tails on. Then serve it with cocktail sauce.”

“You could put it on a plate but that’s boring. This way is much more festive,” he adds.

He’s not wrong.

On Christmas Day, our appetites for crustaceans somehow not sated, we head to my mother’s parents’ house a few towns over for more presents, merry making, and of course, more shrimp.

Prior to his death in 2013, my grandfather was responsible for the shrimp cocktail. Years of recipe refinement lead him to what he declared to be the perfect preparation. His secret recipe was passed to my mother and her siblings, but, even at the age of 36, I remain in the dark. I think it involves ice? Maybe lemon?

Shrimp Ring with Cocktail Sauce
LAURIPATTERSON/GETTY IMAGES

The shrimp cocktail on my mother’s side is a decidedly more serious affair. Here, it is served on a platter designed specifically for that purpose. Austere, straightforward, and the complete opposite of my father’s accidentally tropical display.

There was a time when I thought my dad’s shrimp tree tradition was goofy. But now, I see it for what it is. It might not be classy but it is joyful and fun. Life doesn’t give you many opportunities to skewer shrimp to a pineapple with colorful toothpicks, so I say take them as they come. 

And, as my dad points out, you can eat the pineapple when the shrimp is gone.

“You can’t do that with a platter, now can you?” he adds.