SEPTEMBER is the month when millions of kitchens around the country fill with the sweet smell of jams and jellies boiling and the spicy fragrance of pickles and relishes simmering. Wide-mouthed canning jars, washed and sterilized, stand on countertops, ready to be filled, sealed, and labeled. The process takes time - lots of time - but who can put a price tag on the pleasure of savoring the bounty of summer through the barren months of winter?
For a brief period last month, this annual rite of September appeared to be threatened. Newspapers reported that Ball Corporation was getting out of the home-canning business and would eventually stop making its classic jars with rubber rings and multipart lids. Another icon of domesticity seemed ready to be added to the growing list of quaint "collectibles."
The story proved to be incorrect, and the company quickly set the record straight. As one reassuring executive put it, "Yes, Mrs. Homemaker, there is and will continue to be Ball home-canning supplies." Although company officials had stated earlier that the market for canning jars had been "flat" for five years, he insisted it was "thriving," adding that nearly 25 percent of all households still do some canning.
Whatever the status of the market, the flurry of media attention seemed to underscore the sometimes shaky state of domesticity in the 1990s. As millions of "Mrs. Homemakers" have taken off their aprons and headed to work, skills like canning, baking, and sewing have had to fight for survival. Who but the most energetic can put in 40 hours a week at the office and still find time to "put up" quantities of fruits and vegetables? How much simpler to toss a jar of grape jelly or a can of tomatoes into a cart
at the supermarket.
Much of the passion behind the national debate about family values reflects a sense of loss for the traditional family. But lurking in the shadows might also be unspoken feelings of loss for the comforts of traditional domesticity. Call them "domestic values" - and color them endangered.
Now that the zapping microwave has replaced the simmering soup kettle and the apple pie cooling on the counter is more likely to be frozen than homemade, the assumption grows that a house can run on automatic pilot. "Housewife" and "homemaker" have become dismissive words, although the tasks they imply cannot easily be replaced.
Unless, of course, a family lives in something like the Gabe Self-Cleaning House. Designed by Frances Gabe, an inventor in Newburgh, Ore., it stands as the ultimate in domestic efficiency. Cupboards double as dishwashers. Closets serve as washers and dryers. Floors slope gently toward a drain. As Ms. Gabe, who is now in the process of manufacturing and marketing her invention, explains, "You punch an electric button and open a valve. The system cleans ceilings, walls, windows, furniture, floors - everyth ing."
But such robotic efficiency rather ducks the point, like the futuristic dream of disposable clothes. The dignity of a certain kind of work still remains in question.
Colonial homes hung needlepoint mottos on their wall to celebrate the worthiness (while illustrating the skills) of the complete homemaker. In their place, we have funny aprons that are worn on those occasions when people who allegedly have more important things to do with their lives play condescendingly at being cook.
Earlier civilizations, right up through the Romans, had household deities who presided over the cooking fires and lent honor to the code of hospitality that went with feeding family, friends, and strangers. In their place, we have Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, who have to make slight jokes of themselves in order to keep the kitchen and the home "in perspective."
No one - least of all homemakers - would want to make something too solemn or too sacred out of domestic duties. Maybe any sense of humble necessity is best symbolized by the Ball jars sitting on the shelf in the September light, gleaming and businesslike, waiting to be filled. Compared with another fax or another memo or another computer printout, there is a distinct argument in favor of a good quart jar, topped to the brim with food as colorful as a jewel and as fragrant as a spiced garden.