In a greenhouse behind his suburban home in Goose Creek, Jason Marshall tends to some of the tongue-scorchingest peppers known to mankind: the chocolate habanero, the bhut jolokia, and the dreaded Trinidad moruga scorpion.
Marshall, a mild-mannered database administrator by day, has been experimenting with extreme strains of chili peppers for more than a decade now. He used to only share the fruits of his labor with friends, but recently, thanks to the help of some culinary-minded acquaintances, he's been unleashing them into the world.
Coast Brewing Company, a craft brewery in North Charleston, has been using a blend of Marshall's peppers in its increasingly spicy Dave Brown ale for a few years now. Marshall says he has more than five pounds of Trinidad scorpions waiting at home for the next batch of Dave Brown. He says he trades the brewery peppers for beer, and the arrangement came about organically enough: "I like beer, they like peppers."
For a chili head, Marshall does not come across as a tough guy. He is plainspoken and gentle-voiced. He's a simple backyard farmer; his produce just happens to be a weapons-grade irritant. And he says that even in the Lowcountry — a place that's never been known for its spicy cuisine — he's not alone.
"There's a bunch of chili heads around town, and I just keep bumping into them, and we swap seeds, talk hot peppers, and try and outdo each other at being ridiculous and eating hot peppers," Marshall says.
Marshall says he has always been willing to lend a few chilis to bartender friends who wanted to try infusing their own hot vodkas, and he and his friends have even experimented with their own small batches of other food products. "We've done vodka, rum, tequila, olive oils, vinegars, whatever looks like it needs spicing up," Marshall says. But it wasn't until recently that Marshall met his pepper-loving match in Raul Sanchez, owner and head chef at Maya Del Sol, a Mexican restaurant in Park Circle.
Sanchez, for his part, says his lifelong love affair with spicy foods began during his childhood in Chicago, when his mother concocted devilishly hot sauces and used them liberally in her home cooking.
"My mom was always the one with the idea saying, 'Make the sauces, make everything really hot,' and I kept saying, 'Mom, no. People don't really eat hot,' " Sanchez says.
Sanchez says it was Marshall who first approached him about the possibility of cooking with his backyard peppers.
"Jason came into the restaurant one day and he said, 'Your food is amazing, it's hot, and I have ghost peppers. Do you think you have any use for them?' " Sanchez says.
The bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, is a hybrid chili that was originally cultivated in Northeast India and was reportedly used to remove flesh from the skulls of the dead. The Guinness Book of World Records certified it as the world's hottest pepper in 2007, clocking in at more than 1 million Scoville heat units. (For comparison purposes, some pepper sprays register at just 500,000 Scoville units.) It was later overtaken in 2012 by the Trinidad moruga scorpion, which was in turn topped in 2013 by the Carolina Reaper, grown by the aptly named PuckerButt Pepper Company in Rock Hill, S.C.
Sanchez says he took Marshall up on his offer and started experimenting with making his own hot sauces.
"I let a couple of customers try it, and they liked it, but I just thought it was lacking something until I came up with mixing the peppers," Sanchez says.
The final mix, which Sanchez bottles and sells in his restaurant as Raul's Very Own Mayan Devil Hot Sauce ($6), is a bright-red concoction that's smoky, nuanced, and extremely potent. He uses a mix of Marshall's ghost peppers and Trinidad scorpions, plus red vine jalapeños and smoked Mexican cayennes that he usually buys from a vendor at the Ladson Flea Market.
Many customers can't use the sauce undiluted, but Sanchez's mother loves the sauce. He says he sent two-and-a-half gallons of the stuff home with her in October, and his family has already eaten all of it.
Marshall takes that as a high compliment.
"I was like, 'Yes, success! Folks that really love hot stuff really think it's hot,'" Marshall says.
Marshall is still an amateur — he mostly gives his peppers away or trades them for goods or services — but he has learned a few things over the years. The greenhouse is a must-have for growing peppers that require a tropical climate, he says. He's also had some success using heating mats to keep the soil warm year-round.
Another trick of the trade: Fire ants.
"Fire ants actually help a lot. They eat all the bugs that try to infest the plants, so I just let them grow in my garden. And with the bee population kind of being crushed, having extra pollinators helps a lot," Marshall says. "It's also good to keep kids away. Everything in there, you probably shouldn't mess around with much."