I don't need no steenking recipes! Quite a few years ago I started asking my mom for recipes for the dishes I liked so much. Many – perhaps most – of the recipes I asked for elicited the same answer: “I don’t have a recipe for that!” For example, I love the doughy dinner rolls she made, and that's what she said when I asked for that recipe.
Finally, after many entreaties, she finally agreed to write down a recipe for those dinner rolls. This was in the mid-'80s. When I got the recipe, it was a list of ingredients – without amounts – and some very vague directions like “bake at medium until done”. I didn't even bother trying with that recipe :)
But the next time she came out to California to visit us, I figured I had a foolproof scheme: I'd ask her to make the rolls while I watched and recorded what she did. How could that fail?
It did, though, and fairly spectacularly. The first problem was that she didn't measure anything, literally – she took out a mixing bowl and threw in flour and the other ingredients until it “looked right”. I had no clue how much of anything she'd put in. Then while she was mixing and kneading, she added more random quantities. Even that wasn't the end, though: when she put it in the oven, she checked it periodically and changed the temperature while it was baking. Again, those adjustments were based on how it looked. At that point, I simply gave up.
Years later, she started writing down some actual recipes and passing them along, including those dinner rolls. I tried making some of those recipes, with results that were dubious at best. I like to think of myself as a reasonably competent cook, but there's no way I could make something like dinner rolls without a recipe – and no way I could tell by how the dough looked that it needed, say, a touch more salt.
In the '90s, on another of her visits to us, I talked with mom about that seat-of-the-pants cooking style. She told me that she was taught to cook that way. She had recipes, but considered them just guidelines and starting points – that “obviously” you'd have to adjust them on the fly to make them work right. I think she pitied me for my inability to understand directions like “until it looks right” :)
I now have a pile of recipes from her. But I have little hope of ever recreating the dishes as she made them...