May 26--It's Friday, and Heather Dame-Keel's kitchen table is packed with piles of chocolate and raspberry cupcakes, giant cookies and containers full of sweet, stringy taffy.
Dame-Keel spent all morning whipping up the tasty treats to take to the Kokomo Farmers Market on Saturday, where she runs her booth called Lucky Lemon Bakery.
But the baked goods aren't your run-of-the-mill desserts, and Dame-Keel isn't a normal baker.
That's because her baked goods don't contain any milk, eggs, shortening, cream or meat. In fact, they don't contain any ingredient that comes from an animal.
Dame-Keel is a vegan, and her business is the only one in the city that exclusively bakes vegan food.
The 28-year-old Kokomo native will be the first one to tell you that vegan food isn't something most people expect to find in Kokomo. But that's what makes her bakery special.
"I think people have this misconception that vegan food is bland and disgusting, and it's not," she said. "It can be really tasty."
But that's something she had to discover for herself.
Dame-Keel graduated from Kokomo High School in 2006 and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she honed her culinary craft studying at Sullivan University. There, she learned all kinds of different cooking styles and techniques, but vegan wasn't one of them.
It was after taking a job at Whole Foods Market in Louisville that Dame-Keel got her first taste of eating vegan. The store challenged employees to cut out meat and all other animal-based foods from their diet, and she decided to give it a try.
Dame-Keel said at first, it was pretty tough. But after about a week, she noticed something: She felt great.
For around 10 years, Dame-Keel said, she had suffered from acid reflux, but after switching to eating exclusively vegan food, it disappeared.
Dame-Keel decided to stay vegan after the challenge ended, and she's been vegan ever since.
That's forced her to get creative when it comes to cooking. Dame-Keel said preparing vegan food isn't hard, but it does take an outside-of-the-box approach when baking traditional desserts like cookies and cupcakes, since normal ingredients like eggs and milk won't do.
"I didn't learn any of this in culinary school," Dame-Keel said. "But as you can see, I have quite a collection of cookbooks."
About 40 of those cookbooks with titles such as "Vegan Junk Food" and "Vegan Holiday Cooking" are lined up on shelves in her kitchen, and there's even more boxes of books packed in her garage.
Dame-Keel brought all those books with her when she moved back to Kokomo from Louisville after losing her job at Whole Foods.
And after being vegan for a few years, it was culinary culture shock to be back in the city, she said.
"When I moved back to Kokomo, I felt like a fish out of water," Dame-Keel said. "I was like, 'There are no vegans in the city.'"
But after living back in town for a while, she realized that wasn't true. There were vegans and vegetarians in Kokomo, and they were hungry from some real vegan cooking.
"If you want to go out to eat, the restaurants don't have anything for you here," Dame-Keel said. "They can make you a salad, but they have to take everything off of it but lettuce. There are very few businesses that cater to vegans."
So when some friends suggested she should open a food booth at the farmers market, she had her hook.
"Well, I'm vegan, and there aren't a lot of options in Kokomo for vegan food," Dame-Keel said. "That's how it was born."
And the name?
"It was like, 'When life gives you lemons, make cookies," she said laughing. "And there you have it. Lucky Lemon."
Dame-Keel opened her booth last year at the market, and it's quickly caught on as a crowd favorite. At the first day of the market earlier this month, she sold out of all her food in just two hours.
But getting people to try vegan baked goods took a little corralling at first, Dame-Keel said.
"I figured I would trick people into eating this, because when you tell people it's vegan, half the time they're like, 'Ewww, this is going to be gross,'" she said.
So she started handing out free samples without mentioning the cupcakes, cookies and other treats were vegan. And almost every time, people loved it.
"They all said, 'Hey, this is really good,'" Dame-Keel said. "But I needed to trick them into eating it before they made a snap judgement on it.'"
Now, she doesn't shy away from marketing her food as vegan. In fact, it's become the bakery's niche. Most of her customers are vegan or vegetarian. Others like her baked goods because they have milk or egg allergies, and Dame-Keel's desserts are some of the few treats they can enjoy.
The success at the farmers market has Dame-Keel thinking about expanding her business and opening a food truck or bricks-and-mortar restaurant. She said that might not happen this year, but it's the long-term plan for the bakery.
She said for now, she's happy to whip up the desserts in her kitchen for the market. And she's happy to have started up a conversation in Kokomo about vegan cooking.
"I think it's hard for some people to talk about being vegan, because sometimes you get ridiculed for it," Dame-Keel said. "This is getting people to talk about being vegan, and feeling good about being vegan."
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carsongerber1.
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