Mirva Johnson grew up in Virginia where she spoke both Finnish and English at home with her family. Her mother is from Finland and her father’s parents emigrated from Finland, so Mirva also visited family in Finland regularly.
Her life experience fueled her trajectory in college, and when she applied to graduate school for linguistics, she learned the University of Wisconsin-Madison has an entire field devoted to Scandinavian Studies.
Not wasting another moment, she pursued a path that would capitalize on her language skills; she decided to learn Swedish (she was familiar with it since some Finnish relatives speak Swedish) and considers it one of the best decisions she’s made.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning the language and it has helped broaden my own knowledge of Scandinavia,” Mirva said. And as a graduate student she has already begun teaching Finnish as well as Swedish. “I enjoy teaching language just as much as I enjoy learning about language.”
In an assignment for her Scandinavian American Folklore class, Mirva had to participate in some aspect of Nordic-American folklife, so she chose to bake pulla (a Finnish coffee bread) based on a recipe she received while doing fieldwork in northern Wisconsin. Pulla was something her grandmother often made, and as a little girl Mirva was allowed to help in some small ways, like in the braiding and with the egg wash.
But she had never made bread dough from scratch. She was determined to try, but her attempts didn’t turn out quite right. Not long after that Mirva suffered a concussion and the doctor ordered her to rest. Never one to sit idly, she was very frustrated because she couldn’t do much of anything she enjoyed.


Except bake. Turns out baking was something she could do without triggering her concussion symptoms – she could read recipes from a cookbook rather than a screen and very little stressful concentration was required — and so it became an outlet for a lot of her energy during her recovery.
At first, she just baked cookies and scones, but then she decided to give the pulla another try. “I asked my mother for my grandmother’s recipe and baked it using a combination of the recipe and my memories from when my grandma made it. It turned out pretty well!”

Mirva also made pepparkakor from a Finnish recipe — she has a photocopy from her mother’s old cookbook and translated the amounts for different ingredients. Since she had the time, she tried a couple different batches and eventually got the balance right.
Mirva realized the day she could finally return to her Swedish students was the last day of class, Dec. 13, Luciadagen. Long before her concussion she knew she wanted to have a special fika with her class on that day, so she decided this was perfect timing to try making lussekatter. She was ready. She decided to use an American recipe she found online because converting measurements isn’t always easy and it’s tricky to find some ingredients here in the states — kvarg, vaniljsocker, pärlsocker. And she aced it the first time.

Most of her students may not have known how lucky they were, but a few knew how special it was to have fresh, perfect lussekatter on Lucia Day.
Next up for Mirva is more Swedish baking: prinsesstårta (it’s been on her mind since she tasted it in Uppsala last summer) and kanelbullar. “Now that I feel a bit more confident in my bread baking skills they’re next on my list. Those and vaniljbullar.”