Sad Girl Creamery’s SueEllen Mancini Knows Ice Cream Makes Everything A Little Better
Content warning: this story contains mentions of self-harm, mental illness and depression.
When SueEllen Mancini indulges herself with a pint of ice cream it brings back waves of nostalgia and emotional comfort. Versatile in all its forms and endless flavor profiles, the sweet treat can act as a remedy for the blues of any kind. This was the premise behind Sad Girl Creamery.
The idea came from “ice cream being a coping mechanism and my own memories of eating pints [while] being sad on my own couch,” she told mitú. A self-taught pastry chef, Mancini runs her business from her home in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Her menu is quaint, changing monthly, but it packs a punch with mouthwatering Latin-centric flavors.
Seven years in the making, Sad Girl Creamery officially took off during the pandemic. Almost instantly, her frozen treats gained traction for their comforting twist on childhood classic flavors. Notable bestsellers include her “Patitos” ice cream bars; a nod to the childhood classic Gansito bar. Her “Arroz con Leche,” which honors her grandmother, is also a fan favorite.
Born and raised in Houston to immigrant parents from Uruguay and Chile, Mancini often spent time at home helping her grandmother cook. The youngest of three siblings, she fondly recalls the Uruguayan desserts her grandmother made. However, nothing compared to the warm comfort of when her grandmother prepared Arroz con Leche.
“I was always stoked every time I could smell it,” she said.
The aroma of toasted cinnamon and vanilla filled her home as the dessert baked in the oven. Her ice cream rendition—made of Mexican cinnamon, vanilla, and toasted rice ice cream—was one of the first flavors she introduced in paletas and pints.
Mancini always had a sweet tooth, craving desserts whenever she could have them. Ice cream, however, was a rarity in her household. Whenever she craved a frozen treat Mancini loved going to the paleteros to get coconut cream flavored paletas.
In her teens, she loved the familiarity of Häagen-Dazs’ Dulce de Leche pints. She currently loves to wind down with a pint of her “Coconut Passionfruit” sorbet from her own menu. (She really loves coconut if you couldn’t tell.)
Half of her business goal is to feature the diverse spectrum of Latine cultures, including her Uruguayan heritage. The other half seeks to be a safe space for mental health awareness and communication.
Sad Girl Creamery is both nostalgic and informative with mental health tidbits.
Scrolling through Sad Girl’s Instagram feels like you’re taken back to the early 2000s. From the brand’s logo to its aesthetic ice cream portraits set to a vibrant purple backdrop, the brand is oozing with style.
What stands out the most is how Mancini aims to tackle a subject related to mental health with a conversational caption. Every other post feels like an open diary entry, using the platform to express her experience in a resonant manner.
So far Mancini has shared her own experiences with intimacy, self-validation, and the mindfulness tips that help her. Mancini has even shed light on the mental health crisis within the food industry.
In 2017, Unilever Food Solutions conducted a research survey that revealed a serious mental health crisis in the restaurant industry. Results showed that 74 percent of chefs were sleep-deprived, 63 percent were depressed, and more than half of surveyors felt like they had hit a breaking point.
In a two-year study by Mental Health America, results concluded that out of 19 industries the food industry ranked in the top three worst industries for mental health alongside retail and manufacturing. It also ranks highest in illicit substance abuse and third highest in heavy alcohol consumption, according to a 2015 study.
Despite this, Mancini remains thankful to be part of the food world.
With brief and poignant captions, Mancini is unafraid of sharing parts of herself with her customers. Approachable and authentic, she has found that many customers support how her business openly discusses these subjects. Many, in fact, reach out to her either via DM or in person during a pop-up just to talk, something of which Mancini is greatly appreciative.
“I’ve always appreciated personal relationships in business. I think it helps people see you as more than just a business and like an actual person,” she said. Having spent half of her life working her way up to get to where she’s at, Mancini only hopes for Sad Girl’s longevity.
In high school, as Mancini taught herself how to bake she also began to struggle with her undiagnosed mental illness.
Growing up, Mancini was surrounded by a predominantly savory cuisine where her grandmother was head chef. Yet, her hankering for desserts at home seemingly grew when she was in high school.
At 14, she began teaching herself how to bake by reading recipe books and “watching a sh*tload of Food Network.” But before she could dive in she needed to save up first to have supplies and ingredients at hand.
“I didn’t have a [lot] of money, so I would save up the lunch money that my mom would give me and kind of just scrum whatever food I could find at school,” she said. Her baking journey began with easy treats, slowly adapting to more complex recipes as she got better.
In the midst of her journey, Mancini began to deal with her own mental health obstacles.
When she was 26, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but has dealt with her symptoms since she was 14. When she began communicating her symptoms to her family, the conversation did not get very far as the subject was still heavily stigmatized.
Though the conversation around mental health is progressing, the subject’s taboos remain prevalent.
“Sadness isn’t necessarily accepted as a feeling you should hold on to,” Mancini said. “It’s definitely like, ‘Hey, you need to do whatever you can to get rid of that right now because we don’t got time for that’ kind of attitude.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, factors like language, legal status, and income can bar Latine’s from accessing quality treatment. Wanting to keep the subject private in fear of familial humiliation also contributes to a lack of knowledge. Mancini further acknowledges how generational differences prevented real communication in her youth.
“I think it’s just like a survival mentality from your parents coming to the states and having to start a whole new life,” she explained. “If they have a family to take care of they don’t really seem to allow themselves time to process anything, because they think that’ll slow them down from achieving what they need to do to survive.”
For Mancini, being in the kitchen provided catharsis against her depression.
Without a proper way to process her symptoms, Mancini began to accept them as a normal reality that fit under the trope of teen angst. As her condition progressed she secretly struggled with self-harming for over a decade.
“I honestly had no idea how to control any of those feelings. I didn’t have coping skills or anything that was super healthy,” she said.
In discussing how self-harm can be a result of wanting to redirect emotional pain into a physical one, Mancini created a paleta dedicated to speaking out and finding healthy alternatives. With Cajeta drizzles to represent self-harm scars, Mancini shared her own scars in a powerful post stating that one shouldn’t be ashamed of their scars and to be kind to yourself.
Nonetheless, Mancini struggled to verbalize the intensity of her episodes. She described it as being physically conscious while her heightened emotions would leave her in an almost “blacked out” state. While these episodes often passed, she continued to deal with extended depression.
In recent years, the rates of severe mental illness among Hispanics have increased. In 2019, SAMHSA reported that 7.4 million Hispanic adults suffered from a mental illness. 1-in-4 suffered from a more serious condition. Out of all young adults (18-25) dealing with mental illness, 51.2 percent received no treatment. Furthermore, across all reported age demographics women disproportionately faced major depressive episodes with severe impairment.
For Mancini, she looked forward to the meditative qualities of cooking as “a form of catharsis” to express herself and “help relieve some of those depressive symptoms.” On occasions when she isolated herself at home, Mancini would create a baking schedule to distract her from amplifying her “nonstop self-judgment.”
As she grew passionate and meticulous in her craft, Mancini realized she didn’t want to limit her cooking style. Further aiding her business model, she sought to understand the cultural significance of food, finding inspiration from one documentarian.
With “no reservations,” Mancini watched Anthony Bourdain travel to “parts unknown” to gain food wisdom.
Food Network is probably an ideal channel if you want to gain recipes. But what really captivated Mancini was watching the documented travels of late chef Anthony Bourdain.
Gaining notoriety following his bestselling memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain’s persona was utterly sarcastic, punk rock, but above all he was honest.
His life was nowhere near perfect, having dealt with past struggles. Bourdain was a resonant figure who set himself apart from the preconceived stuffiness of the food industry.
“I really liked the way that he spoke,” said Mancini. “He did have a very punk attitude which I definitely related to at the time. I just saw his language in myself.”
Besides the constant wanderlust, Bourdain further exposed viewers to diverse cuisines. For Mancini, watching his travels throughout Latin America was “the first time [she] got an opportunity to see videos of that or people exploring and learning about that culture.”
“I think that what most inspired me [was] what the show was about and that [Bourdain] would meet common people and not hoity-toity chefs all the fucking time,” she said. “I mean there was even an episode where he went to Uruguay; like I’ve never been there in my life still. So seeing the episode was definitely like ‘Oh, wow, this is what Uruguay is like and this is where my mom’s from!’”
Bourdain visited Uruguay twice during his travel series’; once in season four of No Reservations and in the final season of Parts Unknown.
Tragically passing in 2018 by suicide, what transcends Bourdain’s life was his outlook on food and the human condition. On the third anniversary of Bourdain’s death, Mancini paid tribute to the late chef in an Instagram Story. As a reminder, she wrote that “our inner lives can differ so drastically from what appears on the outside.”
To maintain authenticity, Mancini credits fond memories of people and places for creating her monthly menus.
Admiring Bourdain’s communal outlook on food, Mancini hopes her business is in accordance with that theme. Planning to open her own brick and mortar, Mancini wants a space to support the community she’s connected with. After all, wanting to create safe spaces for communication has always “been in her bones.”
While still a work in progress, Mancini uses her innovative flavors to be another means of connection. With a largely Latine customer base, she wants her ice cream to highlight desserts unique to each culture.
The pandemic has, unfortunately, made it difficult to globe trot for inspiration. Instead, Mancini looks to local dessert shops in L.A. for taste tests. Although, her favorite method for coming up with new flavors is through warm memories of people and places.
“I think the more personal I can keep it, the more authentic it’ll be,” she said. “If it’s something close to you, you’re gonna want to honor it as much as possible.”
One example is her “Cajeta Latte;” a flavor inspired by the Black Hole Coffee House where Mancini worked as a kitchen manager for three years. Other times, Mancini dedicated flavors inspired by different countries through pop culture figures she admired in her youth.
When New Year’s Eve rolled around, Mancini created her flavor “Mucho Mucho Amor;” dedicated to Walter Mercado whom she remembered from watching his New Year predictions.
In moments when Mancini hears Celia Cruz, she thinks back to family gatherings on Christmas that’ll drag out until 2 a.m. because everyone was dancing and drinking to her music. “Plátanos y Azúcar” and “La Vida Es Un Guanarval,” were her homage to the Queen of Salsa.
As a native Texan, Mancini knew she had to create a flavor inspired by the Queen of Tejano. Growing up listening to Selena via cassette tapes and owning her barbie doll, Mancini looked for ingredients unique to Texas and Mexico for her flavors “Anything for Selena” and “The Bidi Bidi Bon-Bon.”
Visually mimicking Quintanilla’s iconic outfit from the 1995 Astrodome concert; “Anything for Selena”—a buttermilk blackberry ice cream with mango jam and purple edible glitter—was created for the late singer’s birthday.
One day Mancini hopes to hold her own ice cream socials in partnership with mental health organizations to continue raising awareness within the community. In the meantime, customers can look forward to Mancini’s pop-up dates to see her and get their ice cream fix.
Witnessing her own self-growth, Mancini hopes to see advancements in de-stigmatizing mental illness.
Grateful that her business is booming, Mancini is also immensely proud of her self-growth.
“For the longest time it was hard for me to understand that my state of mental health does not define me as a person; even though it gets in the way all the time,” she said.
Now 30, Mancini has not only obtained a strong set of coping skills. She’s also slowly been able to discuss mental health with her loved ones.
“It’s definitely way more evolved now,” she said. “My mom has gone out of her way to try and understand [my disorder] more too, she has read books on psychology and wants to understand as much as possible.”
For now, discussing mental health is still surface level. However, Mancini knows that the conversation will eventually get deeper.
“I think we’re still kind of in the avoiding pains stage. You don’t want to hear that your loved one is in so much pain. But I know that it has to happen, but we’re not there yet.”
As she continues to do her part in destigmatizing mental illness, Mancini advises those who view it as an obstacle to not “associate yourself with it too much.”
“It is not your personality to have this thing and this struggle in front of you,” she said. “You can always find the resources and help out there. It is possible for you to get to the point where you actually feel like yourself so that you can move forward.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, text NAMI at 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case of an emergency please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
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