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Sundays: Mark Pupo's ode to a year of father-son weekend breakfasts

'It wasn't just about us. It was this thing that every family strives for'

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Our cookbook of the week is Sundays: A Celebration of Breakfast and Family in 52 Essential Recipes by Mark Pupo. To try a recipe from the book, check out: zucchini quiche and farmer’s sausage, cheddar polenta cakes and brown sugar bacon, and banana bread with brandy butter icing.

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The home kitchen is a very special place, but it can also be a stressful one, says Toronto writer Mark Pupo. When he started cooking with his son, Sam, who was then four (and is now six), Pupo wanted to get away from the pressure. His goal was to make the kitchen Sam’s creative zone: fun and relaxed.

“We can create these memories for kids, especially, that will carry through their lives. That should hopefully give them the foundation to go out there and do things more independently,” says Pupo. “And also, hopefully, carry on these recipes on their own, to their own families.”

By making breakfast together, he and Sam have established new cooking rituals, many of which are tied closely to place. Mini monkey bread, for example, can only mean one thing: spending time at their friends’ cottage in northern Ontario. They let the dough rise overnight, and the next morning, tamp it down. Then, they shape the dough into balls, roll them in a buttery, spiced mixture, place three into each cup of a muffin tin and bake.

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“He just loves doing that and it’s associating that sensation of playing with that kind of dough, a particular kind of dough, making these little marble-sized balls. And then, the flavour — the cinnamon and the brown sugar — he associates that with that place. And we have to do it. It’s a tradition now, which is wonderful.”

Pupo’s memoir-cookbook, Sundays (Appetite by Random House, 2023), chronicles a year’s worth of father-son weekend breakfasts. The 52 recipes follow Sam’s learning curve, starting simply, with toast soldiers and almond butter overnight oats. The complexity increased with his confidence, and the book concludes with four versions of French toast (plain, stuffed, coconut-mango and an eggnog bake) and Pupo’s Estonian grandmother’s braided Christmas bread, kringel.

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Book cover of Sunday's by Mark Pupo featuring a cracked egg in a bowl with a whisk
Sundays: A Celebration of Breakfast and Family in 52 Essential Recipes is Toronto writer Mark Pupo’s first book. Photo by Appetite by Random House

Pupo set out to write a pop culture book about the history of breakfast foods. Though he was having fun exploring the origins of staples such as bagels and cereal, he soon realized the subject was so compelling to him because of a personal connection. His mother and grandmother taught him to cook. As a teen, breakfast had been his specialty.

At the same time, Pupo and his husband, Stephen, were looking for meaningful ways to spend time with their young son. In the midst of the pandemic, Sam wasn’t at junior kindergarten as he would have normally been, and they all had more downtime.

“I wanted to find a way to get him really engaged in life, in general. But (also to) get him away from his iPad in the morning, get me off my phone and do a special thing as a family,” says Pupo. “He was already interested in what I was doing in the kitchen, and I always had these boundaries. Basically, ‘You stay there at the table. I do this.’ But then, once I broke that boundary and got him involved, he was really fun, and it became this weekly routine for us.”

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Pupo saw a sense of pride grow in Sam. He was happy to be helping Dad in the kitchen, cracking eggs and measuring milk. As his confidence grew, so did his ability to solve problems. His hand-eye coordination sharpened. Using a timer to tell when breakfast was ready helped cultivate patience and manage emotions. Sam developed a curiosity in the kitchen, says Pupo. The more they cooked, the more he treated each recipe “like a science experiment.”

The connection they were building felt universal, adds Pupo. “It wasn’t just about us. It was this thing that every family strives for. There are lots of cookbooks out there about breakfast foods, but I wanted to do something that was very personal and special for me.”

Pupo was around the same age as Sam when his mother involved him in cooking, and he still remembers the feeling. “I thought it was this miracle, being given entrance or permission into this world that I didn’t know I was allowed to get into. And being able to do something alongside her, it eventually just built that independence in the kitchen. That sort of self-sufficiency is great, and I really wanted Sam to have that, too. And he’s got it now.”

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Parenting a child on the autism spectrum who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder involves working through strategies and routines, Pupo says, but the experience of being in the kitchen together applies to any family. “The challenge is to keep them engaged and focused on the task at hand, and to also make it feel meaningful for them — not just this thing that we have to get through. It’s an important part of our day. Eating together is important. Making things together can be really important, too, and it creates these memories. It’s the thing that he ends up talking about a lot and wanting to do, which is wonderful to see.”

Bunch of bananas
Make sure you have plenty of ripe bananas on hand for Mark Pupo’s banana bread with brandy butter icing. ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTOPHER ROULEAU

Many of the recipes in Sundays — including the accompanying cheddar polenta cakes and zucchini quiche — are dishes Pupo made often with his mom when he was growing up. His in-laws live on the coast of Cape Breton and have introduced him to Nova Scotia specialties such as cod cakes and chow-chow, and toutons and blueberry jam, which he features in the book. “There’s a lot of things that they’ve made me over the years that I love, and my son loves, too. So, I just wanted to make them part of our repertoire.”

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Others still are foods that he didn’t grow up eating but Sam likes — especially packaged cereals such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch. (Pupo shares several from-scratch cereal recipes in the book, including Cinnamon Square Cereal and DIY Cream of Wheat.) He wanted Sam to start thinking about where cereal comes from, how it’s made, what’s in it and how to create your own version.

“It’s a pretty straightforward thing to figure out, as long as you can find some of the raw ingredients. And it makes the food more meaningful for your kid, I think. Especially today, when a lot of groceries are expensive, and we’re often pretty far removed from how a lot of things are made — packaged foods in particular. It gives you a better appreciation of what you’re actually eating and, hopefully, you can also eat better.”

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As the world opened back up, the act of cooking together stuck. Sam is better at cracking eggs than he is, says Pupo. He loves baking and frying pancakes and wants to make cupcakes every night of the week. Pupo always considered himself a precise cook, but as it turned out, Sam is even more meticulous.

Lessons learned through cooking carry through to the rest of your life, adds Pupo. That first year of making breakfast together every Sunday was an education for both of them, in different ways. For Sam, cooking was a natural way to learn math and step-by-step planning. Eggs in and of themselves offer multiple avenues to explore: where they come from and the many ways we can cook them. (In Sundays, they’re boiled, fried, poached, shirred and whisked for quiche.) All of the information Pupo had amassed on the history of breakfast foods added even more of an educational aspect to their cooking sessions.

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The learning reflected in the pages of Sundays wasn’t one-sided. Cooking with Sam brought Pupo back to basics and reconnected him to the breakfast foods he had taken such joy in making as a child. For roughly 10 years, Pupo was a restaurant critic for Toronto Life, dining at fancy spots almost every night of the week. Not that he didn’t enjoy it, he says, but after a while, he started craving the comfort of family favourites.

In the past, when he and Stephen had people over for dinner, he would recreate the restaurant-style meals he enjoyed as part of his job. “(I tried) to understand how that stuff was made and tried to perfect it, as well, and to stand at that level. But it’s not always fun. It’s more fun to cook stuff like pancakes. And so, working on this book, especially working along with my kid, made me a more relaxed home cook. I sort of got over a lot of that uptightness that cooking can inspire in a lot of people and let loose. And breakfast is the perfect time to do that.”

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