Themes of rationing, scarcity and frugality have become increasingly prominent in UK food discourses of recent years, and the historical period of ‘austerity Britain’ (1939–1954) has proved to be a key symbolic resource in these debates. This article considers the conjunction of food, culture and ‘austerity’, and explores how austerity discourse might inform British consumers’ understanding of global food systems. It notes that critical work on commodity de/fetishization tends to focus on geographical knowledges, and seeks to complement this research by attending to the role that historical resources play in rendering food commodity systems intelligible. Through an analysis of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London, and in particular the iconographic site of the ‘austerity larder’, the article considers the extent to which austerity discourse offers a legible index of food commodity chains, raises questions about fragility of supply, and makes food scarcity visible. The analysis reveals some of the ways in which historical geographies of consumption may shape consumer imaginaries. The article concludes by identifying some of the issues that arise from the recourse to history, and by arguing for further attention to the symbolic work that historical resources perform in contemporary consumer culture.