It's the Night of the New Moon here at Buena Vista Coffee in the Mexican War Streets. And that is the most propitious time for making herbal remedies, Moirin Reynolds tells her seven assembled students.
Reynolds, the owner and operator of Bridget's Apothecary, has commandeered this corner coffee shop for what she calls a "Make-and-Learn": an evening dedicated to creating tinctures that can ease nervous tension, promote restful sleep and so on. Spread out on a table before the participants are cups for tasting, along with 12-ounce Mason jars for putting up the tinctures, small muslin sacks and bags of herbs.
"OK, we'll start," says Moirin (pronounced ma-RIN, like the California county).
She is greeted by murmurs of appreciation from the young, mixed-gender crowd.
"If you give your body what it needs to heal itself, it will," the slight, slender thirtysomething says.
The statement meets with no objection. The assembled are herbalists, true believers who've put up $15 apiece to be here. "Herbs are my life-savers," offers one woman, a mother of seven. "I'm so grateful for herbs."
Nods all around.
Now they're ready to take the next step: delving into the alchemy of tinctures.
"First," Reynolds says, "it's important to know each herb."
Dutifully, she passes around bags of herbs, which are sniffed, crinkled, tasted. "Chamomile tea helped my menstrual cramps," one woman says.
"Once you know what reaction the herb induces," Reynolds says, "then you know what's best for you."
What's best for her, now, is running such classes and making her own Bridget's Apothecary products, salves, lip balms and the like. (Bridget is Reynolds' middle name ... and a reference to Brigid, the beloved Irish saint and healer.) With a CV that includes time as a driver, potting-shed manager and coffee-bar barista, the Hopewell Township native was an art major in Texas and a paper-maker in New York City before finding her way home.
"One of the things I love about Pittsburgh," she says, "is that if something isn't happening here, you can start it. And people are supportive."
Dedicated to spreading her herbalist gospel, a year ago Reynolds started teaching classes out of her Bloomfield home. By spring, she'd set up sessions in Polish Hill, Highland Park, Mount Lebanon and the North Side. For a wink, smile and nominal fee, she also takes her Make-and-Learns to people's homes.
"They're great fun," she says. "I love the teaching, the research, the preparation. I love meeting new people, especially those with a genuine interest in making these things that are so important to the way we live and thrive."
To get her students in the mood, she passes out mugs of herbal infusions she's made earlier. "If you want to increase your health a notch" — Reynolds hoists her eight-hour brew — "start drinking nettle. It's a multi-vitamin."
"Tastes like green beans and spinach," one man says.
A question arises about picking herbs hither and yon.
"I've not done a lot of wild harvesting," Reynolds says, "because I'm not sure of the area. If you're going to go digging up stuff in your yard, it's best to have your soil tested. If you don't want to do that, remember, there are plenty of stores and online sources for herbs."
Tonight, Reynolds has brought two kinds: skullcap, which helps alleviate "stress, anxiety and depression," she explains; and cramp bark for cramps, menstrual and otherwise. "It's amazing," she says.
Tinctures, which distill the essence of the herbs, can be made using any liquid, including glycerin and vinegar. But Reynolds prefers 100-proof grain alcohol because it absorbs the herbs' essence so thoroughly.
Dishing herbs into their Mason jars, the participants then pour in the grain alcohol. Closing her lid tightly, Reynolds warns, "Keep it away from oxygen, light and moisture. Shake it from time to time.
"And talk to it," she adds with a smile.
"Any particular music?" one man asks, and they all laugh.
"In two weeks," Reynolds says, "on the night of the full moon, strain it through this muslin bag, and you'll have your tincture, available for any situation."
There is a smattering of applause, and Reynolds smiles. "I like the idea of people coming together and taking these little steps," she says. "And they always get to take something home."
Swapping herbal tales and recipes, the communal chatter continues long after the Make-and-Learn is over.
It's a calm night on the North Side. No one seems eager to leave.