Raised in New Orleans and Texas, the talk show host says she always had a healthy appetite for sausage-laden red beans and rice, as well as for thick, juicy steaks. She first tried to quit meat 15 years ago, she said in a telephone interview, but lasted only six months.
"I've always called myself an animal lover. And yet I ate them," she said. "Until four years ago I would be driving past these cows on pastures, and think 'What a lovely life that is,' and I'd go and order a steak. It takes a click, just one light bulb, and you're like 'I can't do that anymore.'"
The click that lit that bulb for DeGeneres came by way of chicken four years ago. "Someone mentioned 'If you knew what chicken looked like or you knew how chicken was made, you'd never eat it again,'" said the Emmy award-winning comedian. "Something snapped."
Since then, DeGeneres and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, have purged their diet of all animal products, including milk and eggs. It wasn't easy this time around, either.
"It's like anybody who's trying to make a change, especially a habit like eating food every day," she said. "It's hard to make a change."
But this time, she says, she forced herself to watch gruesome video footage and undercover documentaries shot by opponents of the meat industry, and to read books on the subject. The images that stuck in her head from the films and the books helped her stick to her choice. But so did something much simpler — good food.
It helps that she and De Rossi have a personal chef.
Roberto Martin, author of the new book "Vegan Cooking for Carnivores" (Grand Central Life and Style, 2012) — which includes many of the recipes he created for the couple — made the transition easier by serving them dishes such as sliders made with veggie patties and smoked tempeh, Greek salad with "tofeta" (vegan feta cheese made of tofu), ceviche made from hearts of palm, and beluga lentil "caviar" complete with buckwheat blinis. He even recreated DeGeneres' beloved red beans and rice.
"They were over the moon happy," said Martin, who follows a largely plant-based diet, but is not a strict vegan. "It was vegan food that was completely different from what they had before. They were living on quinoa and kale salad."
Martin said the key to helping people make the switch — or even simply reducing their consumption of animal products — is to think about creative substitutions. Break a recipe down into protein, acids, liquids and fat. Substitute plant products for the animal products like meat or milk or butter, then apply good technique, such as stir-frying or sauteing to produce deep flavours.
DeGeneres' own struggle to transition makes her sympathetic toward others considering a switch.
"I know it's hard for people to digest," said DeGeneres, who wrote the afterward for Martin's book (de Rossi wrote the foreward). "No pun intended."