Thanks to Katie Norregaard, the neighborhood is bright again.
In the decades since "Mister Rogers" went off the air in 2001, there’s been an ever-growing hole in the heart of American media. With the expansion of the internet and the evolution of social media platforms, our "neighborhoods" now exist in ever-changing, often toxic, not-so-reliable spaces like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
Norregaard (known to her young students and listeners as Miss Katie), a Chicago-based songwriter and teaching artist, is working to foster acceptance and celebration of differences in her students through heartful songs — many of which are about food. On her social media platforms, her gentle voice and generous interactions with children have been likened to Fred Rogers, the beloved American television host.
In the video, originally from March 2021, Norregaard sings the instructions for making dumplings to students who range from one to seven years old.
“Chao ji dan / chao ji dan / chao, chao, chao,” she sings in the video, while stirring an invisible egg in her palm (the lyrics translate to “fry the egg, fry the egg, fry, fry, fry"). She then sings about cutting the carrots, wrapping the dumplings (with a very cute pinching motion), boiling them and, finally, eating them.
In an interview with TODAY Food, Norregaard explained she learned the words as a little girl from her mother, who is Taiwanese and appears in a number of her videos. In one of those videos, Norregaard sings about dumplings alongside her mother, who makes the gestures on her daughter's hand, the same way she did when her Norregaard was a child.
“Typically, I hold up a little toy dumpling that I show (the students),” Norregaard explained. “I talk about what goes into the dumpling and all the different variations whether you eat meat or you don’t.”
Always, Norregaard gives her students a lesson on diversity and appreciation of other cultures by emphasizing that there are many different versions of dumplings across the globe and how they are a cherished part of Taiwanese and Chinese culture.
Then, together they sing.
“They do it so enthusiastically,” Norregaard noted with a smile. “It’s really fun to see.”
It’s not just her students (who can be heard singing along in the videos) who express their excitement. On Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, where she’s posted the dumpling videos, Norregaard’s comments sections are filled with appreciation and expressions of nostalgia.
“OH MY GOD MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES WERE DUG UP it’s been forever since I heard this,” one TikTok user commented.
“i just taught this to my students this past week! they loved it! and so did i because i retained. close to nothing. in mandarin school,” another user remarked.
“For me, this was a song that was just very personal, and I didn’t expect so many people to resonate with it,” she added. “I didn’t expect that first off that all the students in my class would enjoy it already. But that then it would find a place publicly in the world where so many people were connecting with it. And I think that’s given me even more confidence and appreciation of my cultural heritage. So I think, if that also empowers other people to love themselves more love their culture more and to express that, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
There are other food songs, too — ones about bananas in the sky, latkes, and even food utensils, which encourages students to share their favorite eating tools, whether they be chopsticks, fingers or spoons. She also does other non-singing activities with students: For Indigenous People’s Day, the singer read “Fry Bread” by Kevin Noble Maillard, and on Juneteenth, she explained the history of the holiday.
“Yes, I do a lot of food songs. But what I always try to work on is creating a very open environment for talking about different kinds of foods,” Norregaard explained. Sometimes, it’ll be a silly song about food falling from the sky, and everyone pretends to catch the items with their mouths. “Then I’ll say, ‘What kind of food do you want to come from the sky?’ or ‘What’s one of your favorite things to eat?’ So I try to invite their preferences and their experiences into it as well.”
“For the most part, what I try to do is have a unifying theme,” Norregaard continued. “We all eat, we all need food, and maybe the things we eat might be different or the ways that we eat might be different, but kind of starting at a point that everyone can understand … I feel like it can be a really inviting way to help kids grow an understanding of other ways of enjoying food, other ways of being.”
Norregaard's songs certainly have the potential to prevent children from “othering” foods they might not see or eat at home.
In particular, her songs have the capacity to prevent food stigmas in cafeterias, familiar to many as being “lunchbox moments.”
Children of immigrants and people of color can likely relate to these lunchbox moments, which occur in school classrooms and cafeterias where PB&Js and Lunchables typically reign supreme. For those who experience them, the moments stick around years later, primarily because they are associated with the first times a child might see their family culture as being "odd" to others.
“I definitely relate to having that experience in school. I actually was just talking to my mom about that recently. And she remembers when I asked her to stop preparing these bento boxes that she was making for my lunches, and I asked her for peanut butter jelly sandwiches.” Norregaard recalled. “I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately and even thinking I’d like to write a song about that.”
In giving her students the building blocks to appreciate whatever foods their noses come across, Norregaard is aiming to promote empathy, self-love and action for community. Her desire, she told TODAY, is to encourage people to appreciate their own experiences, joys, culture and, of course, food.
“Whether it’s just one person dealing with their own inner world, but then anything beyond that to connect to other people socializing, making friends, learning about different ways of being a person, I feel like that, especially from a young age needs to be encouraged and supported,” she explained. “Because you need those tools to understand how to how to cope, how to manage big feelings, how to interact in the world in a way that is kind and just.”