Basalt woman features organic granola at Aspen’s MountainSummit
August 26, 2010
ASPEN – Against a background of Mormon teenagers choosing to leave their families, a soldier whose combat death was manipulated for political ends, and the threats posed by plastic and natural gas, Risoun Gallagher’s role in the MountainSummit festival seems prosaic.In Thursday’s Granola Cup, Gallagher will be serving her KiriDevi organic granola as a topping for the Frozen Yogurt Social that kicks off the four-day festival of films and discussions.There is, however, a story behind the granola that ties in well to the MountainSummit tagline, “Celebrating Indomitable Spirit.” And Gallagher’s tale touches on issues including separation from family (like “Sons of Perdition,” the documentary about Mormons fleeing their community); health (as in “Bag It,” about plastic; and “GasLand,” the natural-gas horror documentary that opens the film portion of the festival); and vicious politics (similar to “The 10 Conditions of Love,” about the exiled leader of the Uyghurs, an ethnic group suppressed by China).Gallagher, a resident of Basalt, was born in Cambodia in 1972 – “smack right into the war,” she said.When she was a year old, her father, who had ties to the Vietnamese military that remain unclear to Gallagher, was killed for trying to retire from the military and become a farmer. “He was taken from the field, escorted across town as my mother watched,” Gallagher said. “She said half his body was broken, from being beaten. She was screaming, and her friends held her back so she wouldn’t go after him.”In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, the Communist movement led by Pol Pot, took over the country. Gallagher’s mother was sent to a labor camp, and the 3-year-old Gallagher – Risoun Hung at the time – found herself laboring as well, in a fertilizer-making operation guarded by teenagers with guns. Gallagher finds it ironic that in an agrarian society, malnourishment was an everyday fact – “Those kids in the starvation ads with the bloated stomach and skinny arms – that was me,” she said.But as bad as the shortage of food was the lack of a childhood.”There was no talking, no playing, no laughing,” said Gallagher, the mother of two young girls. “There is no childhood during the war. You’re another laborer, another adult.”In 1979, with the Khmer Rouge pushed out of power by Vietnam, Gallagher reunited with her mother, though her mother was often sent off to work for weeks at a time. One day, she saw her whole village, their pots and pans gathered, walking away, shouting, “The Vietnamese are coming!” A family comforted her and looked for Gallagher’s mother; when nightfall came, they took Gallagher with them. For three months, the group wandered before Gallagher finally found her mother again. They found a semblance of security in her mother’s hometown.”I got to be a kid – climb trees, play with other kids, went to school half a day,” she said. “But at night we still had to go into shelters, to hide from the Khmer Rouge, who would come into town to break into houses, take food. But that was my more normal existence in Cambodia.”A letter arrived from an uncle who had fled Cambodia before the war and settled in the United States. “We thought China and Vietnam were the only other countries that existed,” Gallagher said. “Next thing I know we’re selling our cows and pigs and planning to escape.”It wasn’t that easy. A guide who was supposed to take them, by foot, into Thailand robbed them instead, and they landed in jail, then a refugee camp. They hired another guide who led them in the middle of the night under fences and through ditches into Thailand, and another refugee camp. After two years they managed to get paperwork that allowed them travel to the Philippines – and yet another refugee camp. Finally, around Christmas of 1984, the 12-year-old Risoun landed in Denver’s Stapleton Airport and got her first taste of genuine freedom. It had an odd flavor.”I was wide-eyed, with interest,” she said. “But the smells and tastes were so different. The taste of an apple – I’d never had that. Oranges didn’t taste the same. Seeing TV the first time was scary. At school, everyone was into Madonna and Michael Jackson. No one spoke Cambodian. But they all smiled, so I smiled.”After a stretch at the University of Northern Colorado, Gallagher followed a boyfriend to Aspen. Eventually she married an emergency room doctor and had two children. As she raised her kids, food, one of the things she’s been deprived of, became a central part of life.”I’m always making feasts,” she said. “I tend to want to make sure there’s enough, so every meal, I cook more than enough. I always think if someone doesn’t eat enough, they won’t be OK.”Not any food would do. In her childhood in Cambodia, food didn’t come from packages, but fresh off a tree. “That sets a philosophy for how you do anything,” she said. And the food she gave her family had to pack a nutritious punch: “Because food was so scarce, what I had to put in my body had to be useful. It had to feed me. I know with my kids, they eat certain foods and they feel good; they eat other foods and they feel lousy.”Since her first pregnancy, one of her staples has been her handmade, organic granola. When Peach’s opened last spring, a friend brought in a sample; the next day, Gallagher got a call from the cafe, asking her to be their granola provider. Gallagher formed KiriDevi – named for her daughters, Nakiri and Devi – and began producing raw, organic granola, including a gluten- and wheat-free variety. She uses seeds, nuts and honey, much of it from local sources; there are no refined sugars. It is sold, as a breakfast item or in takeaway bags, at Peach’s, and is also available at Mountain Naturals in the Aspen Business Center and Good Health Grocery in Glenwood Springs.Providing food fills a need for Gallagher.”There was this guilt and desire and a love of food,” she said. “Now I can channel that fortunate thing of starting a business and doing something good with it that’s tied to my life, my feelings and my past. I give people food and it makes things OK. It’s deep. I’m happiest when I feed people.”
MountainSummit: Mountainfilm in Aspen, opens Thursday at noon with the free Granola Cup at the corner of Mill and Hyman. MountainSummit’s film program opens Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House with a 5:15 screening of “GasLand,” a documentary about the natural gas industry.Also Thursday: “Eastern Rises,” about fly-fishing in far eastern Russia, at 8:15 p.m.MountainSummit continues through Sunday, with screenings, filmmaker Q&As, discussions and more at the Wheeler. For full program details, go to mountainfilminaspen.org.