On a blue-skied October afternoon, Peg Cornwell pedaled by Lake Virginia with a square wicker basket secured to the back of her bicycle. The bustling Lakeside roundabout might seem to be a surprising place to meet up with Rollins’s “First Lady”— but there she was, with a cheery disposition and a cart full of ingredients, to give my roommates and I an insider’s peek into the magic of making her cookies.
Spontaneity and enthusiasm are clearly old friends of Marguerite “Peg” K. Cornwell, whose trademark chocolate chip cookies have achieved an iconic status at Rollins. At the end of each month, the C-Store sells cookies made with her recipe, with all proceeds going straight to the Student Emergency Fund.
We walk through the maze of the Lakeside “Neighborhood,” past students who display delight and awe at catching a glimpse of a campus celebrity in the hallway of their dorm.
Then it’s time to bake. Preheat the oven, stir baking soda with flour and salt; mix Land O’Lakes (“the brand is key”) butter with sugar and crack in 2 eggs—Cornwell prefers to add vanilla and bounteous amounts of almond extract during this step, a choice she arrived at “as an accident.”
“I was making cookies one day and rushing around, and by mistake I put a little bit of almond; I said, ‘well I’m not going to throw these out,’ and so that’s what people taste when they notice something different.”
Next comes the most integral step of all: adding the Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, with 60% cacao reigning as her preference. We form the dough into outrageously large rounds in preparation for the oven (10-11 minutes or until golden brown in color).
While we’re baking, it is evident from Peg’s descriptions that President Cornwell was her muse during the early formulations of the cookie recipe. He “just absolutely loves them,” she says. She excitedly told us of a plan for the weekend: seeing “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” movie with President Cornwell. His Instagram review tells all: “Swifties? Not exactly but the movie was awesome.”
By the time the cookies are baked to utter perfection, I understand what all the buzz is about. Biting into one of Peg’s delicious cookies, the rich chocolate morsels are contrasted with hints of nuttiness. It’s a classic cookie with traces of almond evocative of marzipan—a traditionally German confection of ground almonds, honey, and sugar.
Tasting her cookies is reminiscent of the scene from the movie “Ratatouille.” The rat, Remy, sees swirling colors and fireworks as he takes a bite of cheese and then strawberry, saying, “Each flavor was totally unique. But, combine one flavor with another, and something new was created!”
How Peg’s cookies came to campus
Cornwell first shared her cookies with the campus in October 2016, as Hurricane Matthew’s destructive path barreled towards Florida. Rollins used to house students who didn’t have hurricane plans in the Bush Science Center. One can scroll to the archives of her husband, President Grant Cornwell’s Instagram for a photo aptly captioned, “Matthew @ Rollins. Sheltering in Bush. Cozy.”
“The students hid out in the rooms in Bush and were all set up with their little sleeping bags—they were having a grand old time, but still, they were away from their families and a lot of anxiety comes with that,” says [Peg] Cornwell.
“To help them with that process, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll make cookies!’ So I spent days making 200 cookies, and we went around one of the evenings and passed them out to the students, just sort of going around and saying ‘hey, we’re here, and we feel you, and everything’s going to be okay’.”
In 2021, Rollins Dining asked if they could use Cornwell’s recipe to make and sell cookies supporting students, which was a big step on the dessert’s journey to campus stardom.
That year, “they donated 1,025 dollars through the student relief fund, which is kind of fun, and in 2022 they made 625 dollars,” Cornwell said. “You know, that’s something, right? That’s something for a student that needs transportation money, or money to buy books or art supplies, or just something that they don’t have the funds for. So I think it’s really cool that this is really their initiative and I’m just the partner in the deal.”
Catching up with the Cornwells
Peg and Grant Cornwell can frequently be spotted around campus, walking their Portuguese Water Dog, Sailor, whose eyes are often concealed by mounds of curly black and white fur. They met one another at St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts college in Canton, NY.
“We met on the first day of college, actually, a long long time ago—It’s a cute little story,” she shares. “On the first day of school, all the students go outside, and they teach you the alma mater and you do a candlelight ceremony—not dissimilar to Candlewish. We met each other that day, and the rest is kind of history!”
Both the Cornwells are originally New Englanders, but they migrated around to Ohio and Upstate New York for a series of jobs before landing in Winter Park eight years ago.
Cornwell studied economics, worked at a bank on Wall Street, and then at a bank in Chicago for six years as Grant Cornwell attended graduate school.
“Then he got his first job back at our alma mater, and I actually left the bank and started working in Career Planning for 20 years,” she says. “When we went to our first college where he had his presidency, I left the career planning work and moved into the development side. So, I worked with parents—I started a parent’s association so that parents could know more about what their kids were doing and help us with admissions, and now I do more of my work with events at the house and within the community. It’s been good!”
Good is quite the understatement for Cornwell’s involvement on campus, which earned her a National award in 2022 from Omicron Delta Kappa. She was the recipient of the Eldridge W. Roark Meritorious Service Award for being a “champion for the circle at Rollins College,” for her initiations and programming on campus, and for her work as associate to the president for college and community relations.
Perhaps it’s this generous commitment to the community and their presence on campus that has made them the unofficial parents of the student body. It seems so, as they show their support when the campus is experiencing tough times, and during moments of celebration— whether it is cheering on the sidelines of athletic events, watching a musical performance, or sharing cookies in Bush Science Center in anticipation of a category 5 hurricane.
Cornwell is now exploring new baking endeavors. “Given the season, I’m into a spicy molasses cookie as we’re moving into fall and into the holidays—we’re still experimenting. He [Grant] likes them, but they’re not out for the public yet,” she laughs.
It’s safe to say Cornwell’s cookies will “never go out of style.”
“You buy a cookie for a friend and a little bit of the proceeds go to help someone else,” Cornwell says. “It’s just a nice way to remember that everyone needs a little help sometimes.”