MINNEAPOLIS -- Growing up in Indiana in the 1970s, Rob Coleman had only limited exposure to spicy peppers.
“The jalapeños — those were exotic when I was growing up,” Coleman said. “Nobody even knew what those were back then until you went to a Mexican restaurant and they had pickled jalapeños on the table.”
But a passion for peppers, and heat, has inspired Coleman to grow about 100 varieties of some of the spiciest hot peppers in the world — all in his front yard in the unlikely climate of southwest Minneapolis. These days, he adds peppers in one form or another to pretty much every meal, even vegetable juice.
Coleman loves growing and eating hot peppers so much that he even launched a YouTube channel, 7 Pot Club, which draws nearly 12,000 subscribers from around the world. His videos cover everything from tips on growing peppers to, of course, songs about peppers.
With his shoulder-length grey hair, a sprinkling of tattoos and a black-framed glasses, Coleman croons tender ballads about his favorite spicy foods. In another tune, he shakes his hips to the beat as he admonishes “No double cups!” — a critique of a popular pepper growing method for which Coleman carries some disdain.
Starting in January, Coleman's home, from his basement to his attic, is crammed with pepper seedlings sitting on heat mats and under LED lights. They’re labeled with names like “Trinidad Scorpion Pepper” and “Dragon's Breath.”
“There's all sorts of different varieties from all over the world,” he said. “My two favorite things are the super hot peppers and then the wild, the wild variety. I like to get back to what was really the original peppers or as close to that as possible.”
In the late 1970s, Coleman moved from Indiana to Minnesota, a place where many residents are notoriously averse to spice in their food. It was while playing in a reggae band with members from Trinidad that he was exposed to the spiciest peppers he'd ever tasted.
At that time, it was almost impossible to get viable seeds in Minnesota to grow the peppers.
But on tour in New Orleans with a friend's band, Coleman met a cooking teacher who gifted him packets of pepper seeds.
Those became his first pepper garden in 1990.
His operations have grown pretty much every year since, although he still keeps a jar of his first batch of peppers in his attic.
No, he’s not going to eat them.
To be sure, growing the tropical seeds in Minnesota has its share of challenges. Over the years, Coleman and his peppers have faced May snowstorms, cold summers or rainstorms. The worst disaster was six seasons ago. He had brought his seedlings outdoors, glanced at the weather report, and presumed they would be OK for the night.
“There was a torrential downpour and it flooded them, and some of them died,” he said. “The ones that lived were really sickly looking.”
He’s learned from his mistakes and now will usually bring the tender plants in.
This season, Coleman has about 220 plants in his front yard that provide thousands and thousands of peppers. That's where his wife, Cat Gilfillen, comes in.
Gilfillen, who said she’s partially deaf in one ear from spending so much time at the 7th Street Entry, and even did graphic design in the ‘80s for Minneapolis bands like The Replacement and the Suicide Commandos, films most of the 7 Pot Club videos.
She and Coleman dry, smoke and make hot sauce to get them through the year and give to family and friends. She points to a photograph of herself getting down to business sporting a respirator and protective gloves.
“We've had friends and neighbors stop by in the summer, walk up to the screen door, open it, take one deep breath, wave and walk away,” Gilfillen said.
It's a serious operation that has led the couple to new friendships. Carmen Lopez Marshall is a native of Peru, where hot peppers are a mainstay of most meals. She met Coleman and Gilfillen at the farmers market in the Kingfield neighborhood of Minneapolis, where Lopez Marshall and her husband sell produce from their Shakopee, Minn., farm.
Coleman brings them peppers and Lopez Marshall makes jams or salsas and sends them back for him to try.
“We combine their stuff with ours, and they put our stuff with theirs,” Lopez Marshall said. “That's a beautiful combination. It must be because we really became very good friends. We love them to pieces. They are very genuine people.”
The peppers also seem to bring the neighborhood together. Neighbors know they can swing by and grab some if they're making a curry or another spicy dish.
“It's nice to be able to share,” Gilfillen said. “In return, we get all kinds of wonderful tomatoes, eggplants and stuff from our neighbors.”
And it's even brought strangers to their door. Gilfillen was picking peppers one night when a man from Trinidad who was driving by noticed the garden.
“He was just so happy to see them,” she said. “It's just lovely to see that flash of recognition because they weren't expecting to see this here in Minnesota.”