From 1872 to 1900, the Rex organization – as did the Mystic Krewe of Comus for a short time years earlier – carried on the ancient French tradition of featuring a live Boeuf Gras, or fatted ox, in its annual Mardi Gras procession. It marked the last day meat could be eaten before Ash Wednesday and Lent.
As seen in this colorful lithograph published in the New Orleans “Daily Picayune” on Mardi Gras Day, 1893, Rex revelers, dressed as butchers, paraded a live ox atop a float as if leading it to slaughter and the main course at that night’s feast ending carnival. The gesture was often more symbolic than an actual roast-beef-on-hoof dinner. Rex often paraded Old Jeff, a bull borrowed from a local stockyard. On other occasions, says Rex archivist and historian Stephen Hales, newspapers advertised “choice cuts from the boeuf gras” could be purchased at local butcher shops. Mardi Gras 1900 was the last time Rex included a live ox.
“This was the height of the Golden Age of Carnival,” says Hales, “and Rex and other organizations filled the streets with ever more elaborate and sophisticated parades. Somehow a live ox (let alone Old Jeff) in a wagon, even if it represented a significant traditional link to the beginnings of Carnival, just didn’t fit in anymore.”
In 1959 Rex returned the Boeuf Gras to its parade line up, not as a live animal but with a papier-mâché bull, which Hales describes as looking more like “El Toro than a stately symbol of an ancient tradition.” But even that has changed over the years.
“Today’s Boeuf Gras,” says Hales, who reigned as Rex in 2017, “is massive, garlanded and surrounded by white-coated chefs. This traditional symbol seems secure and would surely be recognized by anyone familiar with the symbolism and imagery of early Carnival. The connection through centuries of Carnival celebrations represented by this one symbol, the ancient figure of the Boeuf Gras, adds to the beauty of the tradition carried on in New Orleans each year.”