Irmine's father's father died in the First World War, leaving his widow and six children. Three years later, she died as well; the six went to their aunt, who had eight children of her own. There was never enough to eat; Irmine's father survived on the meadow and in the forest, having taught himself which edible grasses and wild mushrooms were good to eat.
He became the gardener on an aristocratic estate in Upper Austria; his wife, along with four other women, was a cook, and she prepared the food that he raised. Irmine grew up with neither refrigerator nor television. Root vegetables were kept through the spring in the cellar, buried in a heap of gray sand. She saw how the aristocrats lived, observed their fine china and beautiful gardens, and developed her own good taste.
Irmine remembers filling tin cans of wild raspberries with her grandmother; the can was so large, and the berries so small, that it seemed their work would never be done.
Irmine can swim a lake for three-and-a-half hours, and can hike the whole day long, hunting for wild strawberries and chanterelles. She knows which plants make good salads, and which flowers adorn an Easter table.
Her husband lost the upper half of his foot in a motorcycle accident three months after they met. She had to teach him to walk again; his pride made it difficult. They traveled to Italy and hiked in the forests for hours, slow and patient; he was comfortable in a place where no one knew his face, and no tongue spoke his own.
Sometimes half-sentences of Irmine's are amputated by my weak ear for Austrian-accented German.
"Listen, I once had a client, a man, who weighed seventy-five pounds. He was older and in very poor health, the famous owner of four hair salons. After his wife died, he became unable to take care of himself. The way he ate! The man didn't know how to eat, I tell you.
"He would sit down at the table, two mobile phones at his ears, reading a newspaper, legs not even under the table! He ate his food in whole gulps, not even pausing to chew! I had to teach him to sit, you know. At first, we just turned off all the machines, and sat.
"Then I taught him to eat, like you teach a child, I'm telling you. How to chew, how to hold fork and knife, how to cut off bites and savor them for a while. We made nutritious meals, but he didn't know how to start with that. We had to start right at the very beginning.
"Like a child. Where is he now? Oh, I don't know. I think he was one of those hopeless cases, I'm sorry to say. No wife and no love in his life. Seventy-five pounds, his body close to giving up. I think for him, it's almost the end."
Some Ethiopian workers on a friend's organic farm near Vienna taught Irmine their national coffee ritual. "They roasted the green coffee beans right there in the field, over a small metal pot of coals, and then ground the beans ... everything fresh, you have to see it to believe it."
She collects river rocks from the Danube, varnishes them, and piles them in tall glass vases, speckled here and there with raw amber or turquoise stones. "I know what's beautiful, you know. I know what makes people happy. Nature ... and love."